The winter fuel assistance program at North Shore Community Action Programs is back open thanks to an agreement reached by lawmakers last Thursday.
The passage by Congress of a continuing resolution to the federal budget was welcome relief to government employees, but also to local agencies such as NSCAP that rely on federal funds for heating assistance and other programs for low-income families.
“We are thrilled to have the staff back,” said NSCAP Executive Director Laura MacNeil, noting the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) and other federal programs were frozen for two weeks with the heating season quickly arriving in Peabody and other North Shore communities.
MacNeil said all of NSCAP’s fuel assistance workers were hired back and they began processing applications again that Thursday. The program will reopen for appointments on Monday at the Peabody office with priority given to oil clients.
First-time clients can find more details here on how to apply for assistance. NSCAP also provides help with winter weatherization of homes and energy conservation.
The delay in processing applications caused by the shutdown, however, will be difficult to make up before Nov. 1 when the heating program officially begins.
“We will face a difficult challenge catching up now. October is incredibly busy for fuel assistance, because the program officially starts [awarding benefits] on November 1 each year,” said MacNeil. “Last year at this time, the fuel staff had processed 1,500 applications already.”
She said it would take weeks to catch up. “It’s not that we get caught up in the winter [either]…we process more than 4,000 applications in a short period of time.”
NSCAP started mailing out renewal paperwork to clients in August and signing up eligible new clients in the past month.
The most important thing existing clients can do right now is just mail their application in, she said. They could save two weeks on getting their application processed instead of trying to schedule an appointment, which isn’t necessary.
MacNeil said the staff is trying to use appointments for clients who have immediate needs, such as anyone who won’t have oil in their tank come Nov. 1 – some emergency funding is being directed to that effort.
There is no deadline to the assistance program – eligible residents in Peabody, Salem, Beverly, Danvers, Topsfield, Middleton and Marblehead can apply right through April 30 – but once the funding is gone, it’s gone. MacNeil said that’s why they encourage residents to apply as early as possible.
Heating fuel prices are also forecasted to increase significantly this winter in the Northeast and temperatures are expected to be colder this winter.
MacNeil said federal funding (or authorized spending) is now in place through Jan. 15, but due to the fact federal money can be slow to arrive, state lawmakers have signed a bill to get money out quicker to various assistance programs, including $20 million for the 200,000 clients statewide in LIHEAP.
Once the federal dollars do arrive, the state will essentially pay itself back.
NSCAP will receive just over $2 million in federal funding for this winter, according to MacNeil.
But again, there’s the problem of the two-week shutdown inevitably delaying certification of benefits to some clients until after the cold weather hits.
Realizing that could be one of several hurdles for NSCAP in the coming days, Peabody city councilor Anne Manning-Martin asked her fellow councilors last week to invite NSCAP in to discuss ways the city could help. She noted many of NSCAP’s clients are Peabody residents.
Councilor Arthur Athas pointed out that the shutdown could be resolved before the council could meet with NSCAP – he was right, it turns out – but Manning-Martin pointed out the agency would still have a large backlog of time-sensitive applications to deal with and a possible need for emergency funds.
MacNeil said NSCAP is “extremely grateful” both to Manning-Martin and the entire council for wanting to look at ways to help.
“Councilor Manning-Martin has gathered a group of volunteers and we will work together to raise emergency funds to help tide over those clients who will be hit hardest by the delay, such as elders and families with children,” said MacNeil.
Volunteers can’t help process the applications and paperwork, but they can run a phone-a-thon or other type of fundraiser. MacNeil said the group would be discussing possible options this week.
That meeting will take place Oct. 23 at 6 p.m. at NSCAP’s office at 98 Main St. in Peabody.
So who's eligible for fuel assistance?
Despite what you might think, you don't have to be "poor" to receive fuel assistance in the Bay State.
Eligibility is based on the gross annual income of all household members over 18 and the total number of household members. There are income limits. If your total household income is less than or equal to 60 percent of the state median income for your household size, you're eligible.
Here's the breakdown per household size from state figures for the 2013-2014 heating season: