By Dave Rogers
---- — AMESBURY — Time is running out for thousands of Greater Newburyport families desperately hoping to keep their homes warm this winter, as they have either exhausted their federal assistance benefits or are dangerously close.
In an attempt to help those families and many more, Community Action Inc. (CAI) is lobbying Beacon Hill lawmakers to release $20 million in state funds to help supplement federal cutbacks as part of its supplemental budget.
But according to CAI executive director John Cuneo, those efforts are in trouble, as the House withdrew an amendment that would release the money. Attention now turns to the Senate, which was expected to address the issue today.
Yesterday, state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, said she and others were expected to submit a similar amendment to the budget that would include $20 million in home heating assistance.
“This really is in response to a harsh winter where there are thousands of families in the area that have depleted their heating fuel,” O’Connor Ives said. “This will be of serious assistance to them because we are far from done with winter.”
O’Connor Ives said there was precedent for the Legislature to come to the aid of families struggling to heat their homes. During last fall’s government shutdown, lawmakers approved a measure that loaned $20 million for home heating supplies and were reimbursed by the federal government once it reopened.
According to Cuneo, more than 1,000 households eligible for CAI’s Heat Assistance Program have exhausted their entire benefit due to the harsh winter and cutbacks in the federal Low Income Home Heating Assistance program. The agency expects many more households to run out of funds over the coming weeks.
The CAI Heating Assistance Program serves low-income residents who live in the Amesbury, Newburyport and Greater Haverhill area. Cuneo said that of all the households served by his agency’s heating assistance program, 75 percent have someone who is age 60 or older, age 5 or younger, or have a disabled person, a veteran or are a mix of several of these.
Since November, CAI has received 4,792 applications for heating assistance and 3,396 applications have been deemed eligible to receive assistance. Some 1,053 households have already exhausted their total benefit for the year.
“In addition, 653 oil heat customers have less than $150 remaining in benefits, so unless they can supplement the remaining funds with at least $200, they cannot get another tank of oil. The minimum oil delivery is 100 gallons and at today’s cost of $3.53 per gallon, they would need approximately $350 or more to get a delivery,” Cuneo said.
Massachusetts was allocated $135.2 million in federal funds for this year’s program. The state is still waiting for $13.5 million from this year’s grant to be sent by Washington, but that money will be used for new eligible participants and cannot be used to supplement families who have no benefit remaining.
Among the families who have used up their benefits, around 275 of those are in Salisbury, Amesbury and Newburyport, according to Cuneo.
The CAI Heating Assistance program has received many calls from families who are worried that they will have no heat for the rest of the winter.
“The average family receives $205 to $950 in heating assistance through CAI depending on their income and heating source. Last year the average family received about $550 in assistance. This year’s average has dropped to about $385 per household, and with the cold winter we have experienced, the funds are exhausted very quickly,” Cuneo said.
Making the situation even more tenuous for these families is the severity of this winter, Cuneo said, adding that the number of home heating days will be greater than the winter before. When weather dips to about 20 degrees, most heating systems will remain active all day long. In warmer weather, between 30 and 40 degrees, units will cycle on and off, saving valuable fuel, Cuneo added.
“At the end of the day, the winter has been harsher,” Cuneo said.
With budgets stretched to their breaking points, families are having to choose between putting food on their table, purchasing medicine or heating their homes. In many cases, the choice is to cut back on home heating and use electric heaters instead. Many elderly resort to going to bed at sundown and curling up with an electric blanket to keep warm, according to reports relayed to CAI.
“We’re getting the calls every day,” Cuneo said.
Community Action participates in an oil bid program that allows clients who are eligible for heating assistance to purchase home heating oil at a discounted price. Cuneo said the lower price also applies to heating oil purchased for eligible clients by friends or family members. He said the price is currently about 20 to 30 cents per gallon less than the street price.
In addition, CAI has established an agency Emergency No Heat Fund to help area residents who are facing a no heat crisis. Cuneo said contributions can be donated on the CAI website at CommunityActionInc.org or contributors can send a check to the CAI Emergency No Heat Fund, c/o CAI, 145 Essex St., Haverhill, MA 01832.