EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 5, 2012

No increase in NH fuel aid

Early applications for limited fuel assistance advised

By Doug Ireland direland@eagletribune.com
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — As winter draws near, fuel assistance officials urge those who need subsidized heating oil to apply now to avoid being left out in the cold.

The warnings come as word from lawmakers in Washington is that New Hampshire will not receive any increased funding for fuel assistance this winter.

But the good news is that the amount won’t decrease, either.

“We are hearing there is a continuing resolution that would fund it the same as last year,” said Celeste Lovett, fuel assistance program manager for the New Hampshire Office of Energy and Planning.

That’s means the Granite State should once again receive $26 million in federal fuel aid, she said. But that compares to $36 million in each of the two previous years and $50 million the year before that, Lovett said.

Federal funding of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, has taken a hit in recent years.

Congressman Charles Bass, R-N.H., blames President Barack Obama, saying he only included $3 billion for the program in his budget proposal compared to the $3.5 billion Congress appropriated last year.

Bass said this week he co-sponsored legislation that would prevent New Hampshire and other cold-weather states from reductions in fuel assistance.

“Winter is soon approaching and the time is now to ensure there is sufficient funding to help struggling families pay their high heating bills this year,” Bass said in a statement.

While some people may not even be thinking of those snowy winter months yet, others are. They live in the 9,369 households in the state that have already applied and received approval for fuel assistance from the state office.

The number may seem high, but it is pretty typical for this time of year, Lovett said.

And Lovett and Louise Bergeron, energy director for Southern New Hampshire Services, said those who know they will need help and haven’t applied should do so soon.

They spoke of the occasional person who runs out of heating oil and cannot afford to have the fuel tank filled. “We do have households that will be in an emergency situation in December,” Lovett said. “Now is the time to apply.”

For those who do receive fuel assistance, the money usually doesn’t go very far, Lovett said.

The average payment is about $750 — enough to pay for about 200 gallons of oil, Lovett said. That’s about one-quarter of what a typical family needs to heat their home in the winter, she said.

And getting that money has become increasingly difficult for some. Eligibility requirements have been tightened to help those most in need, Lovett said.

To top it off, petroleum prices have been rising as of late — fueling fears of high oil costs this winter.

The average price for a gallon of heating oil in New Hampshire is $3.74, according to the state Office of Energy and Planning. That’s an eight-cent increase in only a month and a 14-cent increase over a year ago.

Those who need fuel assistance apply to local Community Action offices, including Rockingham Community Action — which is overseen by Southern New Hampshire Services. Bergeron said her office has already received 7,709 applications for fuel assistance from residents of Rockingham and Hillsborough counties.

In addition, 2,314 appointments for fuel assistance have been scheduled, she said. More than 16,000 households received assistance in the two counties last year.

The need to help those who have trouble paying for heating oil is why Kathy Wagner of Londonderry founded the Warm Homes program. People in dire need receive shipments of oil, she said.

She usually doesn’t start accepting requests until after Nov. 1, but calls are already coming in, she said.

“The people I’m getting calls from are extremely scared,” she said. “I’m hoping we can help as many as we can.”