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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Community Action Launches Public Appeal

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Monday, October 24, 2005

Northern Berkshire Community Action Area Director Marie Harpin offered information about a federally-funded fuel assistance program on Oct. 24.
North Adams – Fearing that increased fuel assistance pleas will generate needs that outweigh available revenues, officials of the Berkshire Community Action agency and city Mayor John Barrett III announced the launch of a public campaign seeking donations to establish locally-administered fuel assistance funds.

The announcement came during an Oct. 24 press conference held at City Hall.

Donald Atwater, the executive director of the Berkshire Community Action agency, and Marie Harpin, area director of the BCA’s Northern Berkshire Community Action office, said that monies raised will be used exclusively for Berkshire region residents who qualify for federal fuel assistance.

Fuel Revenues Stretched to the Limit

Speaking after the conference, Harpin said that separate funds will be set up for the Northern, Central, and Southern Berkshire community action offices. Fundraisers will be held in the three areas, she said, and added that money donated to each fund will be used to aid residents served by the specific agency offices.

“We are asking the business community, area residents, and churches to help us out,” Harpin said. “My goal is to raise $100,000 because I know I’m going to need it. The rising cost of heating fuel plus new demand for fuel assistance has stretched existing funds to the absolute limit.”

The federal fuel assistance program, known as LIHEAP [Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program], operates from Nov. 1 to April 30 in Massachusetts. Since the application period began in late September, the Berkshire action agency is handling up to eight to 10 new applicants per day, and new applicant appointments are scheduled through January 2006, Harpin said.

Those who have enrolled in the program during previous years may recertify their eligibility by mail.

Harpin said that fuel assistance benefits are retroactive, meaning that people with appointments scheduled beyond the program start date who qualify for the assistance will receive fuel help for heating costs accrued since Nov. 1.

Eat or Heat

Hikes in vehicle fuel costs, health care expenses, and the cost of food and other necessities, coupled with a predicted minimum 30 percent rise in heating fuel costs, has created a challenging, and in some cases, financially dangerous situation for many Berkshire residents. Those on fixed incomes are feeling significant monetary stress, said Barrett.

“This is the worst that I’ve seen in many years,” Barrett said during an afternoon interview.

Barrett cited the almost across-the-board price spikes affecting household budgets during recent weeks.

“The seniors on a fixed income and the working poor are just being slammed all over the place,” Barrett said. “Middle-class families are being squeezed. People will be making the choice between eating and heating.”

Donations for the Northern Berkshire Community Action fuel assistance fund may be sent to Northern Berkshire Community Action, Att: Marie Harpin, 85 Main St., North Adams, Mass. 01247. Checks should be made payable to the NBCA and the “memo” section should reflect the fuel assistance fund as the donation beneficiary.

Information about the Central and Southern Berkshire fuel assistance fund drives may be acquired by calling the agency headquarters in Pittsfield at 413-445-4503.

The Phones Are Ringing

The impact of skyrocketing fuel costs were evident at the Northern Berkshire Community Action’s 85 Main St. office; during a 45-minute interview, Harpin was nearly constantly taking telephone calls from people seeking information about the fuel assistance application process. The queries came from a diverse population, and included single people living on fixed incomes, senior citizens, and working single parents.

“I think this winter is going to be one of the worst for need that I have seen since I started here in 1993,” Harpin said. “I’m very concerned about this. I am concerned about people working at that minimum wage level, and I am concerned about people who have subsidized rents. People with subsidized housing pay their own fuel costs, and this could really hurt them. And I am also concerned about landlords; if people cannot keep the heat on, pipes could freeze and damages could occur.”

Harpin said that because the federal government has yet to pass a federal Fiscal Year 2006 budget, there are uncertainties about just how much federal fuel assistance money will be available.

Program guidelines state that families with gross annual incomes of up to 200 percent of the poverty level may qualify for fuel assistance benefits. Homeowners and those who rent living space are eligible for the assistance. People whose heat are included in the rent may be eligible for federal fuel assistance as governed by specific provisions included in the program’s guidelines. The state-governed LIHEAP program provides direct payments to fuel suppliers as opposed to providing the funds directly to the applicants.

State HEAT Proposal

State legislators have crafted a Home Energy Assistance and Tax Relief Act that, if approved, would appropriate $20 million in state revenues to boost the state’s LIHEAP coffers. The proposed legislation seeks $5 million in funds be added to the LIHEAP program immediately after the act is enacted and adds $15 million to the program once all the federal monies are depleted.

The legislation also calls for a home heating state income tax deduction of up to $800 for single taxpayers with yearly incomes up to $50,000 and up to $75,000 for those who file joint state tax returns. The proposal as currently written provides up to $600 in a tax credit for those who purchase energy efficient items such as home insulation, new windows and window installation, and energy efficient furnaces.

A one-time business tax credit of 15 percent or $300 is included for businesses that purchase solar water heating systems. Other components of the proposed legislation are a green building tax credit, creation of a renewable energy trust fund targeting photovoltaic systems, creation of a fuel cell initiative, and extending an existing ratepayer energy efficiency charge [$0.0025 per kilowatt hour] for an additional five years from 2007-2012. The charge provides funds for programs focused on energy efficiency.

The proposed legislation also asks that utility companies operating within the state be mandated to inform consumers about any available discounts, rebates, or other energy cost saving options.

State Speaker of the House Salvatore F. DiMasi and Senate President Robert G. Travaglini spent almost all of Oct. 24 conferencing the proposal.

$1.3 Billion in Federal Funds Already Allocated

While a federal FY 2006 budget isn’t in place yet, the state has received $38,916,992 for the LIHEAP program. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families released $1.3 billion for the FY 2006 fuel assistance program earlier this month. The revenues were based on FY 2005 funding and do not represent the expected total allocation for FY 2006, according to Steven Barber, a media spokesman for the federal agency.

The agency was able to release the funds because LIHEAP benefits from “continuing resolution” status that is set to expire on Nov. 18. If a federal budget is not approved by that time, it is likely that the resolution would be approved and continued, he said.

States may request that up to 90 percent of their federal LIHEAP allocation be delivered over two quarters of a fiscal year; Barber said that many Northern states seek the bulk of their funding during the first two quarters of the federal fiscal year, while Southern states, which offer cooling assistance programs, usually ask for the majority of the funds over the final half of the fiscal year. The federal fiscal calendar runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30.

The precise amount of FY 2006 federal fuel assistance funding will not be known until the budget is approved. A difference between FY 05 and FY 06 funding levels will be resolved by the ACF after a budget is in place, Barber said.

The funds are distributed to the 50 states, Washington D.C., and federally or state recognized tribes, tribal organizations, and territories. How much money goes to each individual entity is based on a numerous factors. State governments decide how to manage their allocations, Barber said.

In Massachusetts, LIHEAP funds are administered by the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

Department Chief of Staff Steven Carvalho said on Oct. 24 that federal fuel assistance funds are funneled through 22 state-based community action agencies. The revenues received to date are 50 percent of an anticipated FY 06 total allocation of $74.2 million, Carvalho said.

A "Moving Target"

Earlier this year and before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and disrupted fuel supplies, President George W. Bush said that he would support up to $1.8 billion in increased fuel assistance revenues. Congressional leaders have said that Congress can appropriate up to $5.1 billion more for the program. The final dollar amount is likely to fall somewhere between those amounts, Carvalho said. The estimated $74.2 million state LIHEAP budget was calculated using the $1.8 billion amount, according to information included in the state’s 70-page LIHEAP plan document.

Exactly how much federal fuel assistance funding will ultimately be delivered to the state is not known at this point, Carvalho said

Philip Hailer, press secretary for the state agency, said that determining program costs and resident needs on a yearly basis is a challenging process complicated by variables including federal revenues, the incidence of weather extremes such as lengthy cold snaps, and other factors. Significant fuel price spikes further complicate the process, he said.

“The situation is a bit of a moving target,” Hailer said.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.

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