New England governors say they can’t fill heating aid gap

Posted Dec. 13, 2011, at 12:08 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 13, 2011, at 2:06 p.m.
Heating oil is delivered to a home in Barre, Vt., in January 2008. Thousands of  people across the Northeast are bracing for a difficult 2011 winter with substantially less home heating aid coming from the federal government.
Toby Talbot | AP
Heating oil is delivered to a home in Barre, Vt., in January 2008. Thousands of people across the Northeast are bracing for a difficult 2011 winter with substantially less home heating aid coming from the federal government.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Top officials in New England state governments said Tuesday they will be hard-pressed to make up for planned cuts at the federal level in home heating aid.

“It would be impossible for Vermont and probably most other states struggling financially to replace the [federal] funds,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said on a conference call with Gov. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and the lieutenant governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Shumlin said the result could be residents “freezing in their homes.”

The Obama administration has proposed cutting money for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program in half — to about $2.5 billion nationwide. A spending bill in the U.S. House calls for cutting last year’s spending level to $3.4 billion; the Senate is proposing $3.6 billion.

Shumlin said states need a resolution soon — preferably this week. Winter weather has arrived in New England, and the states need to begin distributing the aid.

Cold-weather states around the Northeast have been warily watching developments on heating aid in Congress, and some are considering contingency plans.

Anne Bale, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, said the state has been planning for the reduction. Though final figures are pending, the state expects to receive about $163 million from the federal government this winter, compared to $326 million last year.

But Bale said some of last year’s funding is still available, and she urged people who need help to apply.

“I don’t want anyone to think they might be denied if they truly need the program,” Bale said.

Groups helping low-income residents are worried, too.

“It’s going to be rough. Oh my goodness. We just had two elderly sisters stop in yesterday, and they’re out of oil,” said Karen Snair, the executive director of the Allegheny Valley Association of Churches in Pennsylvania.
“The problem is because the economy is so bad, there are more people than ever hurting. The demand is greater, and the resources are fewer.”

In Maine, John Butera, senior economic adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, said the state faced a $30 million cut in its LIHEAP allocation. Last year, the average Maine household on LIHEAP got a benefit worth slightly less than $1,000. The Obama administration’s proposed cut would reduce that by about two-thirds, Butera said.

LePage, for now, has his eyes on funds from Efficiency Maine, the state’s weatherization and energy conservation agency. LePage would like to see $10 million set aside from that agency as a contingency, and he’s also asked Maine State Housing Authority Director Dale McCormick, whose agency administers LIHEAP, to develop a contingency plan.

Shumlin put the impact of the possible cut in gallons of heating oil. The average Vermont household on LIHEAP was able to use funds from the government program to buy 262 gallons of oil. The typical household uses 600 to 800 gallons each heating season. The Obama administration proposal would translate to 96 gallons per household at current prices, Shumlin said. The House plan would provide 178 gallons; the Senate’s, 192, he said.

Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Tim Murray warned that drastic cuts could force people out of their homes and into shelters. Chafee said elderly residents getting heating assistance likely would be forced to move into nursing homes — significantly raising costs to the states for Medicaid.

Associated Press writers Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine, and Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh contributed reporting.

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