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Poor families face escalating fuel bills on North Shore

LYNN – Jack Mogielnicki calls the fuel-assistance program for disadvantaged Lynn residents a crisis in the making.As executive director of Lynn Economic Opportunity (LEO), which among many services helps the city’s poor pay for natural gas or electric utilities, Mogielnicki is positioned to recognize a dangerous growing trend.Although winter may seem a distant memory, more than 1,300 Lynn families have not paid their heating bills from last season. Those arrearages range from $1,200 to $1,600 on average, but outstanding bills totaling $2,300 are not uncommon, according to Mogielnicki.In Wakefield, the average arrearage for heating fuel is over $2,000, he said, adding, “That’s not good news, and the shut-off trucks are out.”Darlene Gallant, director of community services at LEO where she also handles fuel-assistance applications, notes that KeySpan, the region’s primary natural gas utility company, allows its customers to rack up four-figure bills. However, once service is shut off, the gas company requires at least half the outstanding bill be paid before turning the pipe back on.Gallant enrolls households in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), before the June 1 deadline. If the household arrearage is $1,600, LEO tries to pay $800, occasionally with help from the family.”The old deadline for applying was May, but Gov. Patrick’s Administration has extended it to June 1,” she said. “If your heat is turned on when Nov. 1 arrives, the gas company can’t shut it off until April 30. That’s the law. There’s a moratorium period in winter.”So what’s the problem?According to Mogielnicki, a lack of government funds.”Lots of people have had their gas shut off all summer. They’re cooking on hot plates, which can be dangerous in itself,” he said. “Now they’re trying to scrape together enough money to put the gas back on, and even though we might pay a good portion of that bill, there’s not enough money to go around. It’s the kind of situation that compounds itself, and that is what we’ve seen happening over the past several years. The gas company bills keep getting larger and larger. With oil companies, it’s different. The oil company won’t send a truck if you don’t pay.”Large corporations like KeySpan can handle four-figure arrearages, whereas a small oil delivery company can’t, he said, adding, “People are getting less fuel-assistance benefits, and at the same time utility costs are going higher, so, surprise, surprise, people end the year owing more money.”Gallant explained that more resources are available to oil customers, from charitable groups and churches to discount heating oil companies and federal government subsidy programs.”Last year, there was an additional $20 million appropriated for fuel-assistance through a supplemental budget, and that really helped everyone. That was the only way for some people to make it through,” said Mogielnicki, explaining that LEO is one of 24 community action agencies in Massachusetts that arrange for fuel-assistance.In Boston, the average fuel bill arrearage was $1,100. In Lynn, it was markedly higher. About 1,300 Lynn households presently face gas fuel bill arrearages, according to LEO. Another 230 Lynn households heat with electricity and are having difficulty paying the bills.”That’s about 10,000 to 11,000 people in the city, or 12 percent of the total population of Lynn who are in this program,” said Mogielnicki. “I think a lot of people without gas service in the summer are not going to have the ability to turn it back on. They’ve exhausted all the benefits available to them. I’d call that a crisis. “Gallant agreed. “If LEO pays half of what they owe, these households are still going to keep accruing more debt. If they owe $1,500 and we pay $750, and then they use another $2,000 over the winter, by next spring their arrearage will be $2,750,” she said. “That means when they come back to us, they’ll need $1,375 to pay half their bill, and that’s way more than the going bene

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