ATHOL — An advisory committee formed earlier this year to oversee the use of American Rescue Plan Act funds received by the city from the federal government appears to have been prescient in anticipating increased demand for fuel assistance this winter.
In September, the Athol Select Board, following the committee’s recommendation, approved the use of $200,000 in ARPA funds to help meet the needs of individuals and families who require help keeping their homes warm as temperatures drop.
“There are so many people in need right now,” Christine Blair, Salvation Army social ministries social worker, told the board at their Dec. 20 meeting. “The number of calls coming in right now has skyrocketed. The price of food has gone up, the price of electricity has gone up, gas has gone up, everything across the board, and it’s been wonderful to be able to help people with your oil.”
Blair then provided an update on spending so far. She said the Salvation Army, which oversees the program, has spent just over $31,700, but is waiting to receive seven more bills to pay.
“So, he’s going to jump higher,” he said. “And the appointments come every day.”
He also said that the funds are not necessarily available to everyone who needs assistance.
“Unfortunately,” Blair said, “because it’s just because of the oil, we’re getting desperate calls from people, especially people with electric heat. That’s up 64 percent.
“It’s absolutely insane, and I was just hoping you’d reconsider all the different types of fuel, but especially electricity right now. I know that the School Street apartments, all elderly and disabled people, not much money, have electric heating. I believe the condos across the street from Millers River (Miller’s Woods and River Bend) are all electric. I think Millers River is propane and kerosene. And those are just the few I know of, and they are all desperate for help, just like the people with oil.”
“Originally,” said board vice chair Rebecca Bialecki, who is also a member of ARPA’s advisory panel, “we had talked about propane and oil, so I don’t know how that got lost somehow.”
Blair responded that The Salvation Army had initially received an email from City Manager Shaun Suhoski stating that the funds could not be used for electricity bills.
“My only concern,” Bialecki said, “is that the power can’t be shut off, so no one will be left without heat until April 15, when the moratorium is lifted. People should continue to pay their bills, even if they are outrageously high.”
“Well, they have to have the money to be able to do that,” Blair replied.
“So,” Bialecki continued, referring to a plan proposed by Suhoski that Blair had not yet seen, “(in) the proposal, Shaun added ‘one oil, propane or kerosene fill-up, one winter month’s electric bill . The benefit is limited to one time and a maximum of $1,000 per qualifying household.’
“I know there is also a proposal that Cathy Savoy (Executive Director of the Athol Council on Aging) and Shirley Mitchell (Director of the Athol Royalston Regional School District Family and Community Center) can also accept applicants from those two populations because they have there have been so many calls that you have received”.
Blair added that the North Quabbin PATCH office is also helping with initial applications.
Kala Fisher, a board member, said: “I agree with all of this. My only thing with the electric bill is that we shouldn’t be paying a past due bill. It has to be the current bill.”
Blair explained that The Salvation Army already has a program that limits electricity payments to current bills.
After some more discussion, the Selectboard voted unanimously to approve Suhoski’s proposed improvements to the fuel assistance program.
Greg Vine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.