AUGUSTA — Maine cities like Portland, Bangor and Lewiston could receive less money from the state to help run municipal welfare programs that provide housing, food and medication to low-income residents under a proposal from Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s administration that lawmakers began examining on Tuesday.
The LePage administration estimates the state could save roughly $3.7 million by giving all cities a 50 percent reimbursement for general assistance — the all-purpose, last-resort welfare program administered by cities and towns. Some cities get reimbursed for 90 percent of the cost once they reach a certain threshold in an effort to help municipalities where many people seek aid.
Municipal groups and officials warn that the measure will merely shift costs onto local property taxpayers.
But LePage’s administration contends that the growth in the program is putting the state’s finances at risk. The state’s share of the cost of general assistance to municipalities and American Indian tribes grew nearly $4 million between fiscal years 2009 and 2013, according to the Office for Family Independence in Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Geoff Herman, legislative liaison for the Maine Municipal Association, which is opposing the measure, called the proposal a “superficial, easy” fix for the state. If the administration wants to reduce the state’s share without overburdening communities, it must take a comprehensive look at how the funding is distributed to cities and towns, he said.
“To have the Lewiston property taxpayers … pick up the tab is nuts,” he said.
Lewiston provided nearly $800,000 in general assistance aid last year, with the vast majority going to help residents pay for housing, said Sue Charron, director of social services for the city. She estimates that under the proposal, the city would lose more than $150,000 in reimbursements from the state.
But Rep. Heather Sirocki, a Republican from Scarborough who’s sponsoring the bill, told the Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday that a 50/50 split between the state and the municipalities is “generous and reasonable.”
LePage similarly sought to reduce state reimbursement for general assistance in his supplemental budget proposal in 2012, arguing that spending in the welfare program was unsustainable. But lawmakers rejected most of the cuts in their final budget.
Beth Hamm, director of the Office for Family Independence, said in an interview there’s a perception that cities that routinely reach the threshold — like Portland, Bangor and Lewiston — are “a little more lax in a the way they operate the program in knowing they’re going to get the greater reimbursement.”
But Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who staunchly opposed the proposed cuts in 2012, dismissed that idea and said the city conducts background and asset checks that aren’t done in other communities to ensure that those who are getting assistance are the ones who truly need it.
“It’s unfortunate that the administration continues to roll out this argument that doesn’t have any merit,” he said.