By Scott Stafford
While in the midst of budget negotiations for fiscal 2012 in the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, commonly known as the supercommittee, Sen. John Kerry has asked President Barack Obama to set aside $5.1 billion for heating aid in 2013.
That is the level at which LIHEAP was funded in fiscal 2010.
"In light of new and alarming projections about the cost of home heating oil in New England this coming winter, I am writing to appeal early in the budgeting process for special attention to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) which, as you know, has sustained severe and damaging cuts over the last several years despite a growing need," Kerry wrote in a letter to the president.
Meanwhile, local families and aid agencies are closely watching the price of energy and the thermometer as winter starts closing in. And unless someone acts soon, many local families could find themselves living in the cold.
According to Don Atwater, executive director of the Berkshire Community Action Council, the status of LIHEAP funding for this coming winter is daunting.
"With the federal deficit and the supercommittee, we have no idea what is going to happen this year," he said.
Since the fiscal 2012 budget has not been set, federal programs are funded at 2011 levels through a temporary budget continuance resolution passed by Congress until Nov. 16, Atwater noted. After that, Congress will have to pass
another continuation or allow federal programs to end.
The supercommittee was formed to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal deficit as a condition of a compromise budget bill passed by Congress and signed by the president in August. The six Democrats and six Republicans have until Nov. 23 to come up with a plan.
Until then, the fate of the LIHEAP program and its funding will be unknown.
At current funding levels. Atwater noted, the roughly 11,000 Berkshire County applicants for heating aid will receive about $400 in heating aid, Atwater said. Last year it was $1,100 per household.
At that rate, he added, this year's funding will be exhausted by November, but he is hoping Congress will infuse the program with more cash before that happens.
"Serving on the Joint Select Committee for Deficit reduction, I am particularly aware of our difficult budget situation and the need to make difficult choices now and in the future," Kerry wrote in his letter to the president. "However, I want to stress, as you have, that it is wrong to disproportionately squeeze programs that are a lifeline, literally, for seniors and the working poor who have already been disproportionately hurt by the economic conditions of the last years."
Kerry noted that there are more than 880,000 households in Massachusetts that use home heating oil "to survive our harsh winters -- and with the increase in prices we are already seeing many of them apply for assistance."
Estimates show "the average household will have to spend $2,493 this heating season compared to $2,300 last year," Kerry wrote. "Given these limited family budgets, cuts would mean many may have to choose between heating their homes, cutting back on medications or feeding their families. These are choices American families should never have to make, even in a time of fiscal restraint. Home heating oil is too critical an issue of economic survival for many in New England to have it fall in the order of federal priorities."
According to Chris Farrell, spokesman for Berkshire Gas, the price for natural gas in Berkshire County this winter is expected to remain the same as last winter at $1.39 per therm.
"We will be very close to the current price, barring extremely cold weather," Farrell said. "But we are confident that price will remain stable."
According to a report issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration on Wednesday, "The average price paid by households in the Northeast this winter for heating oil may be the highest ever, almost $3.71 per gallon, more than double the average cost of natural gas."
That is an increase of more than 10 percent.
The report notes that in seven years, the cost of heating oil has more than doubled.
And given the current federal budget situation, Atwater noted, nobody knows from one month to the next what will happen with LIHEAP, which could force many Berkshire County families into a precarious set of choices -- whether to buy heat, food or health care.
"The deficit is an important issue we need to deal with," Atwater said, "but we've got to be careful that it is not done on the backs of the poor."