Portland’s elected officials voiced disappointment and frustration Tuesday night that the city has little choice other than to abide by new state requirements that stop it from using state money to provide emergency shelter to all of the city’s homeless.

They said adopting the new procedures, effective May 1, will upend a long-held understanding between the city and the state that funding from Augusta in the form of General Assistance would help pay for services and operating costs at Portland’s homeless shelters.

City councilors and the mayor lamented the new mandates during a meeting of the city council’s Public Safety and Health and Human Services Committee. They rebuffed any insinuation of financial mismanagement and framed the state’s action as a political and public relations campaign being waged by the LePage administration against the city, one that will hurt Portland’s neediest and mentally ill.

The new rules also are likely to shift hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs, if not more, to the Portland city budget, putting new pressure on the city’s staff and elected officials to find a way to support longstanding programs that have been largely paid for through state reimbursements.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we’re willing to play politics with so many vulnerable people in our city and our state,” said Councilor Justin Costa, who believes the state’s initiative is part of Gov. Paul LePage’s strategy to gain support for his biennial budget proposal.

Committee members did not vote on adopting the new procedures, and do not have power to alter the city’s response. Portland staff must reply to the audit by Monday.

LOOKING FOR FUNDING ALTERNATIVES

Although a few dozen people came to council chambers to listen to the proceedings, only one person spoke during a public comment period.

Mark Swann, executive director of the social services provider Preble Street, acknowledged the difficult position the city has been placed in, but urged the councilors to continue Portland’s commitment to serving the needy.

Swann encouraged city officials to ask state lawmakers to find another way to fund Portland’s shelter services, calling for a “compassion fund.”

“Let’s stop pointing fingers,” he said. “If done right, it will be good for the people experiencing homelessness, good for the city and good for the state.”

LOST AID OF AT LEAST $820,000 ANNUALLY

The changes will require the city shelter’s staff to re-examine each month whether someone sleeping in a shelter meets state-mandated financial eligibility requirements, and to potentially extract payment from those who it is determined are able pay for the services they use. The city also will no longer presume that someone who shows up at a shelter is eligible for the General Assistance program, beyond a 24-hour period.

At the current rate at which people stay at the city’s emergency shelter in Portland, the city will have to find a minimum of $820,000 in operating costs that the state says it no longer will cover.

The requirements come after a Feb. 20 state audit of Portland’s General Assistance program found that some people staying in the shelter held significant assets, in some cases bank accounts with balances of $20,000 or more. In the audit, the state examined 90 cases in which someone applied directly for General Assistance, and of those examples, auditors found that all were in compliance. But the rule changes stem from additional information requested by the state, targeting shelter administration.

The next day, in an Op-Ed column published in the Portland Press Herald, state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew argued for a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of how the state and local governments split the costs of General Assistance, and cast Portland as an outlier in GA spending compared with other cities and towns.

LACK OF COOPERATION, COMMUNICATION

Historically, about a third of the people staying in Portland shelters are from Maine communities other than Portland. Recently, another large portion, estimated at about 40 percent, are people from other countries, according to the city.

Many at the shelters also suffer from mental illness that, regardless of their solvency, makes them unable to care for themselves, advocates have said.

Councilors were critical Tuesday night of an apparent unwillingness by state health and human services administrators to engage in a dialogue with the city, outside of public statements to the media or lawmakers in Augusta.

“This is not how partners treat each other,” said Councilor Ed Suslovic. “This is not responsible governance, to put people’s lives in the balance to make a point. If there are legitimate differences, let’s sit down and work it out.”

OTHER aid LOSSES DISRUPT BUDGETING

The city also is fighting in court a separate but related mandate handed down by the LePage administration this summer that halted General Assistance payments to unqualified non-citizens, and stopped all reimbursement for GA programs in cities and towns that chose to continue to give the benefits to undocumented immigrants.

Since July 1, Portland has spent $7.6 million on General Assistance, and based on previous years, would have expected to receive upward of $5 million in state reimbursements, said Portland finance director Brendan O’Connell.

But because of the citizenship requirement, it is unknown how much the city will receive in reimbursement, blowing a hole in the city’s current fiscal year budget that expires at the end of June, before staff can even consider the implications for next year’s spending plan.

“I think this is one of those rock-and-a-hard-place situations,” said Sheila Hill-Christian, acting city manager.