AUGUSTA — For the first time in the state’s history, Maine cities and towns could choose not to offer emergency assistance to the poor, under a proposal that the LePage administration offered to lawmakers Thursday.

The proposal would eliminate the state mandate that municipalities provide General Assistance. Those that did decide to help the poor would have more flexibility in how to spend state and local dollars, said Dale Denno, director of the Office for Family Independence in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Denno spoke Thursday at a public hearing before the Legislature’s Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees.

Some Democrats reacted angrily.

Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said lawmakers weren’t told about the proposal before the hearing, nor was the public, so there was no time to prepare comments.

“This is an unprecedented change taking place, and the public did not know anything about it,” she said.

Giving cities and towns more flexibility and set amounts of money would encourage them to offer services regionally, Denno said in an interview after the hearing. He said several communities have asked for that flexibility.

“We are trying to be more responsive to a community’s ability to design a program based on their needs,” he said.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said most cities and towns would opt out of General Assistance because it would carry too much risk.

If the nation entered another recession, he said, the number of people seeking help would surge but municipalities would get no additional money from the state. Local taxpayers would then be burdened with all of the additional costs.

“This concept would be disastrous for the state’s safety net,” Brennan, a former Democratic state senator, told the lawmakers.

The General Assistance program is as old as the state, although it has had different names. Since Maine became a state in 1820, cities and towns have had the responsibility of helping indigent people.

Mostly state-funded, General Assistance provides emergency help — often in the form of housing — to people in need. The state spent $11.8 million on the program last year, well over the budgeted $7.4 million, according to administration officials.

The administration is proposing two options to close a budget shortfall in the program. Both would save the state nearly $6 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

One option would change some of the funding rules for the program. The proposed changes, included in Gov. Paul LePage’s supplemental state budget, would:

— Limit housing assistance to 90 days per calendar year, saving $3.3 million. That would affect Portland, South Portland, Bangor, Lewiston and Waterville, according to the DHHS.

— Give all cities and towns a 50 percent reimbursement rate, saving $1.4 million. Bigger communities now can qualify for 90 percent reimbursement after they spend a set amount of money. The change would be expected to affect Portland, Bangor, Lewiston and Caribou.

— Eliminate General Assistance for anyone who receives federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, saving $978,666.

Nearly 100 people testified on the proposed cuts Thursday, nearly all in opposition.

The other option to close the General Assistance budget gap, as outlined by Denno, would be to turn the program into a block grant program.

Cities and towns would get lump sums of money from the state each year, as long as they match it dollar for dollar. They could decide how to spend the money, as long as it went to the poor. Communities could not use it to fill potholes, for example, Denno told lawmakers.

The amount that cities and towns receive would be based on how much money they received on average in the previous three years.

In addition, cites and towns could opt out of General Assistance. As a result, Denno said, more state funds would be available for the cities and towns that did offer General Assistance.

Representing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, the Rev. Frank Morin harshly criticized the opt-out proposal.

“This alternative would, for the first time in the history of our state, actually allow municipalities to choose not to have a General Assistance program at all — an unimaginable result that creates the potential of leaving many vulnerable families without a safety net at all,” he said. 

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

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