PORTLAND — Welfare assistance cutbacks proposed at the state level could shift the cost of providing aid onto the taxpayers of Portland and Bangor, city officials say.

And some of the proposals could push residents out of their apartments and into shelters at a time of historic pressure on services for Maine’s poor, they say.

“There’s absolutely a huge budgetary impact,” said Doug Gardner, director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department. “But the impact on the most vulnerable group of people, trying to work their way up, is what troubles me the most.”

“I would suspect we would have several hundred people being homeless almost immediately,” said Shawn Yardley, Bangor’s health and community services director.

Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget for the two years starting July 1 includes a range of welfare reforms. For example, it would set a five-year lifetime limit on cash assistance, and would make immigrants and refugees ineligible for state assistance programs for five years or until they become U.S. citizens.

Proposed changes to the state’s General Assistance law are emerging as the biggest concern for municipalities.

The budget would reduce General Assistance reimbursements to large cities, which distribute the most aid. It also would limit recipients to 30 days of assistance in each calendar year, eliminating year-round assistance. Some fear that a 30-day limit would lead to evictions and homelessness.

Reducing reimbursements to large cities could save the state $700,000 to $1.2 million a year, say state and municipal officials. It’s not clear how much would be saved by the 30-day limit on aid, a proposal that reflects the governor’s desire to encourage work and independence, said LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt.

The goal is “to make it clear that the program is a temporary and rare piece of assistance,” Demeritt said, “so it’s not something people would turn to time and time again.”

Maine’s General Assistance law has been around as long as the state, and is considered the last resort before an emergency shelter. It requires cities and towns to provide assistance with basic needs, such as rent and utilities, for people who have exhausted all of their savings and income.

Ken Perry, 37, of Portland said Tuesday that he spent a few weeks in a shelter early in the recession, but has kept an apartment since then by taking whatever work he can get and applying for General Assistance in between jobs.

“I haven’t actually worked since the 28th of December,” said Perry, one of many unemployed and underemployed Mainers who have swelled Portland’s assistance rolls in recent years. “I’m a middle-class kid.”

Don Ruiz, 45, has traveled around the country looking for work. He arrived in Portland a couple of months ago with his wife and 8-year-old son.

Ruiz said he has lots work experience and, before the recession, had a home and three cars. He is receiving assistance for the first time in his life, after spending three weeks in Portland’s shelter for homeless families. The family moved into an apartment this month.

“Without General Assistance, we wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he said.

Ruiz said he has applied for about 35 jobs in the past month, and looks for more every day, hoping to pay his own rent soon. “You always think (living on welfare) won’t happen to you,” he said.

General Assistance is administered in town and city halls, with the cost split by the municipalities and the state. The state has paid a larger portion of the cost for Portland and Bangor because those cities have more than half of Maine’s overall caseload and thus qualify for a higher rate of reimbursement.

Under the proposed funding reduction and existing aid levels, Portland would lose $900,000 in state reimbursements next year and Bangor would lose $260,000, city officials said. Demand for help is at or near historic highs in both cities.

“We’d have to find that money somewhere within the city budget,” said Yardley in Bangor.

Portland could see a new surge in demand from refugees and immigrants if those groups lose access to food stamps and other programs, said Gardner, the human services director.

Portland provided General Assistance to 4,400 residents in the past fiscal year, and some of those people were supporting families. The city spent about $6.5 million on the aid, including $4.7 million in state funding.

Most of the aid — about $3.8 million — was used to pay rent for people who otherwise might have been evicted, according to the city.

It’s not known how many of those people needed help for more than 30 days and would have been cut off under the proposed change, said Gardner. “It’s hard to quantify, but it would drastically change the program,” he said.

It’s common for people to rely on General Assistance rent vouchers for several months while they try to replace lost jobs or wait to qualify for Social Security disability insurance, local officials said.

In Bangor, about half of the 400 people receiving rent vouchers have needed help for fewer than six months, said Yardley, but “I would say the vast majority are on for more than a month.”

If the 30-day limit is adopted, those people could face eviction, he said. “Landlords are not going to accept rent from people having no more than one month’s ability to pay,” Yardley said.

And, he said, “all our shelters are at capacity already.”

The financial impact of the budget proposal would be much different in smaller cities and towns.

Lewiston, for example, would generally continue to split its costs 50-50 with the state. And if residents could ask for aid only once a year, the city’s cost would actually go way down, said City Manager Ed Barrett.

Nevertheless, Barrett said, Lewiston expects to work with other cities and towns to protect the program.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: [email protected]