BY ALAN BURKE
---- — PEABODY — Shutdown shouldn’t mean shut out of fuel for the winter.
That’s the position the City Council took last night, adopting a motion from member Anne Manning-Martin to seek ways the city can help process applications for fuel assistance, applications that are now in limbo thanks to the shutdown of the federal government.
“I don’t want to get into any finger pointing about the shutdown,” Manning-Martin told her colleagues. But she noted a recent story in the Salem News recounting how the applications usually received at the North Shore Community Action Programs aren’t being processed because of a lack of funding to pay personnel. “They’re laying off staffers,” she noted. “This is coming right before winter.”
The heating assistance paperwork is traditionally processed in October so people can get fuel starting in November. But those who call for help hear a recording telling them “The fuel assistance department will be closed until further notice due to the government shutdown.” And if that means cold days in the future, Manning-Martin warned, about a third of the people most likely to be hurt will be 65 and older.
To prevent this from happening, she asked that the council’s human services subcommittee consider ways the city can step in to alleviate NSCAP’s manpower shortage. “That is a great idea, Anne,” said member Jim Liacos. His response was echoed by others. The proposal passed unanimously, with little comment.
Councilor Arthur Athas suggested that the shutdown could end within days, but Manning-Martin pointed out that would still leave NSCAP woefully behind in processing the applications. “They’re losing staffers and will have a backlog of applications.”
Following the meeting, Manning-Martin explained that she hopes the subcommittee will come up with a specific plan. That could mean, for example, recruiting volunteers to fill in for missing staffers or even attracting businesses to pitch in. “We could brainstorm ideas.” Manning-Martin is a member of the human services subcommittee while Barry Sinewitz is chairman.
She added that she’s already discussed the plan with NSCAP officials and “they were ecstatic that the city is reaching out to them to work together to ensure our citizens don’t go without heat this winter.” As of last night, she hadn’t raised the idea with Mayor Ted Bettencourt, “But I would expect that he’ll be delighted to help.”
Whatever plan Peabody develops could be an influence on other cities and towns as roughly 200,000 families statewide rely on these programs.