SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 10, 2013

Shutdown shutters fuel assistance

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — PEABODY — One of the most visible local impacts of the government shutdown has been the closure of the Salem National Maritime Historic Site and its visitor center, a move that has left tourists visiting Witch City in the lurch.

But the shutdown may really hit home for low-income local families who need fuel assistance this winter.

The Massachusetts Association for Community Action says community action agencies, including Peabody-based North Shore Community Action Programs of Peabody, are feeling the heat because there is no staff to handle fuel assistance applications.

While fuel assistance programs are supposed to start Nov. 1, community action agencies use October to enroll those who need help paying their winter fuel bills. There are about 200,000 families in the Bay State who rely on these programs.

With the government shutdown, the processing of those fuel assistance applications has been put on hold.

Callers to NSCAP’s fuel assistance line get this message: “The fuel assistance department will be closed until further notice due to the government shutdown.” The voice mailbox does not accept messages.

The fuel assistance program is federally funded, said NSCAP Executive Director Laura MacNeil, and contracts for staff start Oct. 1.

“Because we don’t have a budget from the federal government, we don’t have funding to go forward, and there is no guarantee there will be a retroactive resolution ... the fiscal reality is we are a nonprofit; we need the funds to pay the employees.” MacNeil said.

If the government shutdown lasts until Nov. 1, there would be no fuel assistance money available when the program is supposed to open. The inability to process applications now means there will be a backlog of applications, and that could further delay getting fuel assistance to those who are cold.

The spike in demand for fuel assistance takes place “as soon as it gets cold,” MacNeil said. The fuel assistance weatherization programs to make homes more energy efficient are also going to take a hit.

“That program is going to feel the pinch the longer fuel assistance is delayed,” MacNeil said.

“They are having problems with fuel assistance,” said Congressman John Tierney, D-Salem, who visited Peabody and Bedford over the weekend to hear from residents about how the government shutdown has affected them.

Applications for U.S. Small Business Administration loans from businesses seeking capital to expand are not being processed, Tierney said. The state is losing $200,000 a day because the SBA does not have staff to process loans.

“The Small Business Administration gives out $1 billion in loans every month, and that’s not happening,” said President Barack Obama during a press conference Tuesday afternoon streamed live on the White House website.

There are other unintended consequences, Tierney said. For those seeking to buy a home, the IRS has slowed the flow of information needed to process mortgages. Furloughed government workers are having difficulty paying childcare expenses, and many wonder if they will lose their slots in these programs, Tierney said. He heard from a constituent who said a National Institutes of Health clinical trial for Parkinson’s disease for his wife had been delayed.

Over the weekend, Tierney visited a table staffed by volunteers outside the Salem Visitor Center to provide information to tourists flooding into the city during the busy Haunted Happenings season.

Tierney said the shutdown could end at any time with a clean continuing resolution to fund the government.

“We could solve it in five seconds if the speaker (John Boehner, R-Ohio) would bring a bill to the floor.”

On Tuesday, Tierney was criticized by the National Republican Congressional Committee for voting against a bill that passed the House that would restore government funding for Head Start programs to benefit low-income women and children.

“John Tierney’s vote against low-income women and children in Massachusetts is shameful, and he owes the millions of participants in this crucial program an explanation for why he thinks it’s acceptable to cut their funding due to petty partisan politics,” said NRCC Communications Director Andrea Bozek, in a prepared statement.

“He opposed it, and he also opposed the piecemeal approach,” Tierney spokeswoman Kathryn Prael Dunkelman said of the notion of restoring high-profile programs one at a time. Prael Dunkelman said the executive director of the National Head Start Association, Yasmina Vinci, also opposes the “piecemeal approach” to restoring Head Start funding, because it does not provide “a true solution to the government shutdown.”

“If the National Head Start Association opposed it, that says what kind of bad bill it was,” Prael said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.