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December 10. 2013 1:05AM

Heating fuel assistance funding cuts draw ire of Rep. Kuster

NASHUA — Since registration began earlier this month, about 30,000 households in New Hampshire have applied for fuel assistance.

"The sequestration hit us really hard last year," said Celeste Lovett, fuel assistance program manager at the New Hampshire Office of Energy Planning. Lovett said the program lost more than $1.6 million in funding, which directly affected about 1,200 families in the state.

On Monday, Lovett met with Congresswoman Annie Kuster and representatives from Southern New Hampshire Services in Nashua to discuss fund ing cuts to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

"We are so close to the edge this year in terms of our funds," said Lovett, who fears she may have to turn people away. "That would be terrible."

So far this month, 19,928 households have been certified to receive help from the LIHEAP, although about 10,000 more households have applied and are awaiting eligibility.

In 2008, the program provided Granite State families with nearly $51 million in assistance. That declined in 2009 to $36.6 million, in 2010 to $36 million, in 2011 to $26 million and in 2012 to $24 million.

Kuster said the LIHEAP cuts are leaving low-income families in New Hampshire out in the cold. The sequestration, which has resulted in across-the-board budget cuts, is not an ideal way to budget, she said.

"Everyone can agree that there are cuts that can be made elsewhere in the budget," she said. "I am just outraged that Congress cannot find a way to have a rational budget process."

Kuster is hopeful that a budget agreement will be reached this week, as she called the sequestration "detrimental."

Cuts that could be made elsewhere in the budget — rather than cuts to LIHEAP — include subsidies to large corporation farming programs, or savings by negotiating drug prices, according to Kuster.

"We have some families that are really struggling," Tracy Desmarais, energy crisis coordinator for Southern New Hampshire Services told Kuster.

Gale Hennessey, director of SNHS, shared stories about families in southern New Hampshire using their ovens and space heaters as sole sources of heat during the winter months because they cannot afford to fill their fuel tanks.

"That is not a safe situation," said Kuster.

She again called on Congress to replace the sequester with a more balanced, responsible plan to reduce the deficit, create jobs and strengthen the middle class while also restoring LIHEAP funding to New Hampshire.

Ian Prior, spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, responded to Kuster's comments.

"It's ironic that Annie Kuster is calling on Congress to do anything considering that Kuster didn't vote for a single budget proposal this past March," claimed Prior. "Kuster should stop grandstanding for voters and start doing her job by either voting for a budget or proposing one herself. Otherwise, she is literally giving Granite Staters nothing more than empty rhetoric."

khoughton@newstote.com


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