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With heating aid running out mid-winter, activists seek $20 million

Sounding public safety alarms, community activists are calling on the Legislature to make an emergency appropriation, saying that tens of thousands of families and senior citizens in Massachusetts are running out of fuel aid with a long stretch of cold weather ahead.

According to the Massachusetts Association for Community Action, a statewide group of 24 local agencies that assists low-income residents, many income-­eligible recipients of ­fuel aid have exhausted their benefits, in part due to higher heating oil prices and colder weather this year than last.

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The organization is pressing the Legislature to appropriate $20 million in aid, said Joe ­Diamond, executive director of the association .

“We’re hoping that this happens soon,” he said in an interview Friday. “We just had a storm last week and another one’s coming. Time is really of the essence.”

Diamond said lawmakers are hearing about heating afford­ability problems from their constituents. “They are ­interested in what’s going on, so we’re hopeful,” he said.

The state received $132 million in federal heating aid assistance last year, down from a high of $200 million in recent years, and the Legislature supplemented the federal funds with $21 million more.

Activists are worried that fiscal 2013 federal heating aid of $142 million could be further squeezed by $12 million in cuts in the coming weeks.

The issue of heating aid did not surface in a $115 million spending bill approved by the House and Senate and shipped to Governor Deval Patrick’s desk on Thursday.

Diamond noted the state is a month away from the March 15 lifting of the electricity and gas shutoff moratorium, but said such a moratorium does not exist for individuals who use heating oil, including 40,000 who receive heating assistance. The moratorium is designed to protect residents from losing their heat during the winter.

Up to 200,000 households in Massachusetts receive heating assistance, Diamond said, noting that it is available, for example, to a family of four earning less than $60,000 per year.

The aid is about enough to cover about a tank of heating oil, and most households need three or four tanks per heating season.

Rising prices over the years mean the assistance does not go as far; Diamond compared prices of $3.90 per gallon today to $1.31 per gallon in 2000.

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