Residents Relying on Energy Assistance to Receive Extra $50 to $260 After Baker Relents

City Mission president Rev. June Cooper said the state’s withholding of millions in low-income heating aid is “not just a financial crisis” but a “moral issue.” (Sam Doran/SHNS.)

After facing criticism for withholding a significant portion of approved low-income heating aid until next year, the Baker administration has made an additional $8 million available this spring. But even that change did not satisfy advocates who continue to demand that no money be held back.

The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program is administered locally by Community Action of Haverhill.

Gov. Charlie Baker initially planned to release $11 million of the $30 million allocated by the legislature for low-income home energy assistance this fiscal year, saving the remainder for fiscal year 2020. On Friday, his administration indicated it now intends to make $19 million available this year.

Some elected officials and community organizers, however, renewed calls Tuesday for the administration to deploy all $30 million in authorized spending, writing letters and holding a press conference outside Baker's office. The money is needed as soon as possible, they said, to help families in need ensure they can afford utilities needed to heat their homes.

“This is not just a financial crisis that we’re having,” said Rev. June Cooper, president of City Mission, at the press conference. “This is a moral issue when we’re not able to take care of the most vulnerable residents of the Commonwealth.”

After the federal government trimmed its funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Trump administration said it was weighing whether to zero out the program entirely, Massachusetts lawmakers moved to make up some of the difference with state dollars.

The legislature included $30 million toward low-income heating aid in a mid-year spending bill passed last month. Supporters stressed that the money is necessary to help eligible families, many of whom care for seniors or young children, avoid utility cutoffs and other dire choices.

“This program benefits the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable households in the Commonwealth,” said Georgia Katsoulomitis, executive director of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. “It is certainly immoral that we have thousands of people every day in Massachusetts that have to make the very, very tough decision of, ‘Do I pay my rent, do I buy food, do I buy medicine, or do I pay my utility bill?’”

However, the administration has discretion on how to deploy the funding. Baker’s initial approach was to make $11 million available this fiscal year and set aside the remainder for next year. That approach was consistent with his decision to seek $11 million for home energy assistance in his own proposal filed with the legislature.

That move, however, quickly drew opposition from community groups and from House leadership, and on Friday, the administration indicated it will now deploy $19 million this year, an increase of $8 million.

With that funding, the roughly 157,000 eligible households who use deliverable fuel will each receive an extra $260 in assistance. Qualified homes relying on utilities will also receive an additional $50 in support.

“The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to providing home heating assistance for families and seniors in need and will support the use of $19 million in state funds in FY19 to fund a one-time increase in benefits this year, providing thousands of Massachusetts households with additional assistance for this year’s heating costs and a head start for those who use oil on next year’s winter heating season,” the Department of Housing and Community Development said in a statement.

But the addition was not enough to assuage concerns from several elected officials and from community groups that work with families in need.

Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Natalie Blais penned a letter to Baker on Tuesday warning that withholding some of the funding would “disproportionately and negatively affect the people in our region who rely on this critical social program.”

Half a dozen other advocates, including Rep. Liz Malia and Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, voiced their concerns at the Tuesday press conference outside Baker’s office. A winter moratorium on utility shutoffs ended in March, they said, so low-income families face growing risks even amid warming weather.

Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, called Baker’s decision not to deploy the full $30 million “unconscionable.”

“I was shocked but not totally surprised that the governor only released a little under two-thirds of this allocation,” said Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern. “Consistently, we are a state and leadership here that likes to show up for ribbon-cuttings at biotech companies in Kendall Square, but I would actually invite the governor to come sit with the people that I sit with every day, the people that come into my office begging for help and in incredible need of help.”

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