We all know what’s coming: The leaves have fallen and winter is here.
And while we resilient New Englanders are no strangers to the cold, we already know that for many Massachusetts families this winter will be an enormous burden. Coupled with the financial strain of the holidays, the downturn in the economy and almost daily news of layoffs is leaving many more residents worried about how they will keep their homes warm this winter.
State lawmakers are working hard to alleviate as much of the load as possible so families can get through the cold months ahead.
Amidst a very difficult funding environment, Governor Deval Patrick, made a compelling case in Washington, coupled with a newly formed Winter Energy Costs Task Force, to nearly double the Massachusetts’ federal heating assistance allocation from $114 million to $212 million this winter. Funding for low-income weatherization also increased to $13 million. This money is vital for residents on a fixed or limited income.
But the money will not do any good if people who need it don’t know it’s there or how to access the resources.
One very successful initiative that’s available is “Energy Bucks,” a partnership between Massachusetts utility companies, the Low-Income Energy Affordability Network (LEAN) and local community action programs. Energy Bucks educates residents about fuel assistance, discounts on utility rates and energy efficiency programs.
These services can help save qualified families up to 30 percent on their energy bills by insulating and weatherizing their homes, repairing or replacing a heating system, receiving discount rates for electric and gas, installing energy efficient appliances and obtaining fuel assistance. By spreading the word about the resources available, Energy Bucks links residents to programs that will help them stretch their dollars as the weather gets colder and budgets get tighter.
There is no time to waste. As the temperature dips, young children and elderly residents are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of the winter months, and it’s vital to get people assistance when they need it. Interested residents can go the Energy Bucks website (www.energybucks.com ) or call 1-866-LESSCOST to find their local community action program which will help determine eligibility, explain the programs and walk them through the application process.
While this year’s fuel assistance benefit has increased, providing roughly 10 weeks of heat to oil customers versus last year’s average of 7 weeks, there are also actions residents themselves can take to reduce their energy use and stretch their dollars. Simple steps like taking showers versus baths, which use 40 percent less hot water, and turning off and unplugging all TV’s and computers when not in use, can make a real difference in their energy bills. The Energy Bucks website — www.energybucks.com — has more cost-saving tips.
Even though the price of heating oil may not be as high as originally feared just a month ago, the shaky economy will force many more residents to make difficult choices that no one should have to make between food or fuel, keeping warm or buying a prescription. Year after year, there are more people who find themselves making those terrible trade-offs.
By educating people now about their options, we can help them stay healthy. Massachusetts legislators and the Patrick administration will keep fighting for funding, while the Energy Bucks partnership works tirelessly to make sure no one is left in the cold.
Joe Diamond is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action
Liz Berube is the Chairperson of the Massachusetts Energy Directors Association