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Fuel Funds Dry Up

Every winter, Massachusetts' Congressional delegation fights for more federal aid to help low-income residents heat their homes.

And every winter, the money runs out before the season's over.

As WBUR's Shannon Mullen reports, this year's record snowfall — combined with rising oil prices — have made it harder than ever for families to get by.

TEXT OF STORY:

SHANNON MULLEN: The calendar says spring is coming.

But calls for help with heating bills are still streaming in to groups such as ABCD, Action for Boston Community Development.

SOUND OF ABCD PHONE MESSAGE: "Due to the increased demand for fuel assistance, there will be a delay in answering your call. We want to help you."

MULLEN: Residents who've used up their federal aid are struggling to pay their bills. Here's Denise from Roxbury.

DENISE: I just can't believe how it's so expensive. It's very hard. We have no help.

[SOUND OF OIL WHISTLE]

MULLEN: Oil companies are hurting too. Deliveryman Troy Dixon:

TROY DIXON: Been doing this nine years. Everything's been good up until this season, can't make any money. No one's buying oil.

MULLEN: And the politicians say they're doing their best to help. Senator Ted Kennedy.

SENATOR TED KENNEDY: it's a never-ending battle. I feel my job is to continue to battle, try to make some progress.

MULLEN: It's pretty much the same story every winter.

But this year, add the record high prices for heating oil, used in the majority of Massachusetts homes.

Prices are around $100 dollars a barrel, just above 3 dollars a gallon. That's a dollar more than last winter.

Meanwhile, most people who are eligible for federal aid through the Low Income Heating Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, used their benefits months ago.

90 year old Maggie Phillips is one of them.

[SOUND OF DOOR BELL]

MAGGIE PHILLIPS: Hello, you must be Shannon. I'm Maggie.

MULLEN: Nice to meet you Maggie.

MULLEN: Phillips lives alone in a three-story, 200-year-old house in Roxbury.

The Tennessee native still remembers her first winter in Boston, back in the 1940s, when she had a coal furnace.

PHILLIPS: Oh, yeah we had so much snow. When the plows come by in the middle of the street, banked it up, you couldn't see people walking on the other side of the street. I told my husband, when springtime come, I'm gettin' the hell away from here.

MULLEN: But she stuck it out. She owns her home now, and she doesn't want to leave it after 65 years.

MULLEN [on tape] How much money do you have per month, to live on now?

PHILLIPS: I have about $950.

MULLEN: Is it hard for you to stretch it?

PHILLIPS: Sure it is, but you know that old word — you gotta do what you gotta do?

MULLEN: With a fixed income that's barely over the federal poverty level, Phillips qualifies for LIHEAP aid every winter.

But her benefit hasn't gone as far this year, so her oil company's been filling her tank on credit, and Phillips says it'll take her until August to pay the bills.

In 2005, Congress wanted to fund the LIHEAP program at about 5 billion dollars per year.

But this year it got less than half that, and the Bay State's portion was 107 million dollars.

And then, even with tens of millions in emergency supplements, the money didn't go very far, thanks to oil prices, the economic downturn, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and this region's colder-than-average winter.

JOHN DREW: So right now we've been able to help the most needy who come to us, with approximately one fill-up of oil. It takes three or fourfill-ups to get through the winter.

MULLEN: John Drew is Vice President of Action for Boston Community Development.

He says this year, two thirds of LIHEAP applicants make just over $17,000 dollars.

That qualifies them for a benefit of about $1,100, when heating the average home costs about three to four thousand.

DREW: if you listen to economists they use all kinds of words "stagflation," "lagging. The average consumer, all they understand is that the amount of money in their pocket — which is relatively little for people who work hard — doesn't buy what it bought before, and prices are going up at the same time. It's a terrible confluence of events in their lives.

MULLEN: Drew praises the Patrick Administration for working with state lawmakers to contribute $15 million toward heating aid this winter.

But he says Massachusetts can't fill the $200 million gap between what its residents need, and what the federal government provides.

Some regional advocates defend Congress, saying it's doing its best with less money. Jim Brett, for instance. He heads the New England Council, a business group that lobbies in Washington for the interests of northeast states.

JIM BRETT: It's not that Congress is not listening. It's just that Congress has so many requests right now, and they're trying to weigh and balance and make sure they give enough to as many as they can without raising the budget deficit, and without raising taxes.

MULLEN: Members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation are not so understanding.

SENATOR TED KENNEDY: Elected members of the Congress, the President, make decisions in terms of priorities.

MULLEN: Senator Ted Kennedy.

KENNEDY: And either you have a priority to look after LIHEAP, look after working families, or you have a priority to look after the wealthiest and the special interest. And the special interests have had the day.

MULLEN: Kennedy acknowledges that LIHEAP has been under-funded for decades, regardless of who's been in the White House.

KENNEDY: New administration will alter and change this in a very important and dramatic way. Let's not create, you know, complete false hopes but what it will do is put people in place that will have sensitivity to the needs of working people trying to meet needs of their family and heat their homes.

MULLEN: A Congressional sub-committee under Kennedy's leadership plans to hold a hearing in Washington this morning on the need for Congress to release more emergency LIHEAP funds this winter.

Back in Massachusetts needy residents are just hoping that when the first official day of spring arrives this month, warmer temperatures won't be far behind.

For WBUR, I'm Shannon Mullen.

This program aired on March 5, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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