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New task force to address state's exorbitant home heating costs

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD Prices at the pump are skyrocketing and home heating costs were higher than ever last winter and it's only going to get worse with the coming season.

In response to the escalating costs, Gov. Deval Patrick has organized the nine-member Task Force on Winter Energy Costs to formulate a plan of action within the next 60 days on how state and local legislators can aid Massachusetts residents with the rising costs.

State Sen. Michael Knapik, R-Westfield, is the only legislator from Western Massachusetts to be appointed to the task force. The group consists of five cabinet secretaries and four legislators including Chairman Ian Bowles, also Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Leslie Kirwan, Secretary of Administration and Finance, Judy Ann Bigby, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Dan O'Connell, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Bernard Cohen, Secretary of Transportation and Public Works, State Rep. Bradford Hill, R-Ipswich, State Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill, and State Sen. Robert O'Leary, D-Cape and Islands.

"Elected officials on both the state and federal level are making an effort to ease the financial burden for families who struggle with rising energy costs this winter," Knapik said. "I am hopeful this task force will provide a plan of action before the cold weather hits so families are not forced to decide between paying the heat bill or grocery shopping."

Knapik noted that he believes he was appointed to the task force because of his recent Senate proposal to offer residents a tax deduction of up to $800 for home heating costs for individual residents earning less than $50,000 per year or families earning less than $75,000 per year.

"I was disappointed when the Senate rejected my proposal that would have helped citizens in Massachusetts cope with record heating costs," he said. "I remain optimistic, however, that this task force will provide another avenue for me to recommend a similar measure."

According to information released by Knapik's office, "the price of home heating oil in New England has jumped 87 percent over the last two years. At current levels, it will take more than $3,750 to heat an average Massachusetts household with oil next winter, up from $1,800 just two winters ago. Heating costs are also likely to rise sharply for those who depend on natural gas and other fuels."

"I'm glad to have Representative Knapik serving on the task force," Bowles said. "Western Massachusetts is particularly dependent on oil for home heating, and will be hard hit by the sharp rise in prices. In the coming weeks, the task force will be hearing from the public in a series of hearings, and then coming up with recommendations for what state government, as well as individuals, can do to prepare for a cold, expensive winter."

O'Leary, who previously served as chair of the Joint Committee on Energy, now called the Committee on Tele-communications, Utilities and Energy, said, "I represent a constituency with the highest senior population in the Commonwealth, and I am deeply concerned with the challenges facing seniors on fixed income who will suffer most acutely from the expected increases in heating and energy costs this winter. I hope that as we look for solutions to our winter energy problems, we make sure to provide relief for our seniors."