By Melissa Fuller
From The Haverhill Gazette
As midsummer heat finally makes its way into the Northeast, some families are still struggling to pay up last winter's heating bills.
Unemployed electrician Paul Beck and his wife, Alethea, feared they would be among them.
But with help from Haverhill's Community Action Inc. and a local heating assistance program by Citizens Energy Corp. and natural gas distributor Distrigas, the Becks have a zero balance on their heating bill.
The family, which includes son Dominic, 4, lives in a first-floor, four-room apartment in one of Haverhill's converted Victorian era homes. Its high ceilings make the place bright and airy — and cost the Becks $400 a month to heat in the winter.
"Our Community Action agency came through, paying a portion of the expenses when we needed help with our gas bill. But without (Citizens Energy's) help, the remaining balance simply wouldn't get paid," Beck said.
The Citizens Energy/Distrigas program provides a subsidy of $150 to income-eligible households that heat with natural gas. The subsidy is in addition to the aid provided by Community Action through its Heating Assistance Program.
According to law, a utility company may not shut off service before May 1 if it will leave a home without heat. But after May 1, if there is a balance on a gas or electric bill, the utility company can terminate service, making the summer months worrisome for those who don't have the money to pay off their heating bills.
The Becks never had needed to rely on public assistance before both became unemployed — Paul Beck because of the economy and Alethea Beck because of illness.
The Becks are one of about 6,700 families who will receive assistance this year from Citizens Energy, the company founded by Joseph P. Kennedy II, and Distrigas, which provides up to $1 million yearly to fund the gas program by donating a portion of the sales of gas from each liquefied natural gas tanker coming to its Everett facility.
In the past four years, the program has helped about 19,000 families battle the effect of rising fuel prices, according to Kennedy and Distrigas Chairman Clay Harris.
With unemployment rising, more families are expected to seek help this year. While middle class families spend 5 percent of their income on energy, the poor spend 20 percent or more, leaving them fighting to survive, Kennedy said.
Massachusetts residents can apply for the Citizens Energy/Distrigas program by calling the toll-free hot line number, 1-866-427-9918, or are referred by their local community action agency to get a $150 credit on their gas bill.
"The application process wasn't hard. It was easy as getting the number from my utility company, receiving the form, sending it in, and I was done. Help ... is out there; awareness is key. People should just call," Paul Beck said.