Unitil Corporation, (www.unitil.com), a provider of natural gas and electricity to customers throughout New England , is urging its customers to be aware of all fuel assistance programs available to assist with heating costs as winter approaches.
That was the message shared with nearly 100 nonprofit and community leaders who attended a heating assistance forum Thursday at the Colonial Hotel in Gardner . The forum was hosted jointly by Unitil and the United Way of North Central Massachusetts.
“We are encouraging people to apply early for fuel assistance,” Derek Kimball, residential energy efficiency programs coordinator for Unitil said. “In light of current economic conditions and with temperatures dipping below freezing, officials expect applications for heating assistance to spike.”
John Keeney of New England Farm Workers’ Council, which manages the Federal Fuel Assistance program, said a family of four with a household income of $59,137 or less would qualify for the program. For a single person, the income figure is $30,751.
“Apply for these programs as soon as possible, and please do not wait until you’re in financial trouble before asking for help,” Keeney said.
Those who do not qualify for Federal Fuel Assistance, but may need assistance, may contact the Salvation Army, whose Good Neighbor Energy Fund provides a heating assistance benefit of up to $300 for the year. For more information, call the Salvation Army at 1-978-342-9407 or 211, which provides health and human services referrals. The fund opens for emergencies on Dec. 1 and on Jan. 1 for general assistance.
Kimball also reviewed other programs for income-qualified customers, including special weatherization, budget billing and discount energy rates.
The federal Weatherization Assistance Program, managed by the Montachusett Opportunity Council, provides no-cost energy saving improvements, such as insulation and heating system repairs, to homeowners who meet income guidelines.
Unitil offers a budget billing program, to make monthly utility bills more affordable by leveling out higher seasonal energy bills, which are spread out throughout the year.
In addition, customers may qualify for a discount rate on natural gas or electricity, depending on household size and income. Unitil works with the New England Farm Workers Council to approve customers for the discount rate as well as other agencies that provide public benefits.
Customers who qualify for the discount rate, have an overdue balance of  $300 or more and who enter into a payment agreement to pay their current utility bills on time, may be eligible to participate in the Arrears Forgiveness Program, which provides up to $1,200  in relief  per year, per service on their outstanding balances.
For customers who are over the income limit for low-income programs, Unitil offers the MassSave program, which provides a 75 percent rebate of up to $2,000 to install energy saving home improvements, such as insulation, air sealing and Energy Star lighting products. Customers may also be eligible for interest free loans of up to $15,000 on qualifying energy efficiency upgrades.
“Forums like today help get the word about on these programs,” Unitil Media Relations Manager Alec O’Meara said. “All too often, a family which could make use of these services never makes the call simply because they didn’t know help was available. These programs exist to help you. If you need help, call.”
Phil Grzewinski, president of United Way of North Central Massachusetts, told listeners about a program being administered by
United Way of North Central Massachusetts that provides emergency relief to homeless people who cannot find shelter during the winter months. For more information, agencies can call the United Way of North Central Massachusetts at 978-345-1577.
To learn more about any of Unitil’s programs, customers may call 1-888-301-7700.