March 26, 2013

Lewiston kicks 84 people off welfare rolls

The Associated Press

LEWISTON — Officials in Lewiston say they have removed 84 people from the city's General Assistance welfare rolls, including 50 who could face criminal charges for allegedly lying on applications for the voucher-based program.

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald Macdonald says the city will save $162,000 by eliminating the 84 people.

2012 file photo

Mayor Robert Macdonald said the heightened enforcement fulfills a promise he made after he was elected to whittle waste from the municipal assistance program, the third largest in the state after Portland and Bangor.

"We're going to scrutinize everything," said Macdonald, who said he hopes the public campaign will send a message to other recipients of fraudulently obtained benefits that they could be next.

"We're trying to build our city up. We're not going to be overrun by these types of people," he said.

Macdonald's announcement comes two days before a legislative hearing on the state's General Assistance programs. Meanwhile, an advocate for the poor said Tuesday that, despite the mayor's rhetoric, most recipients need the help.

Lewiston Social Services Director Sue Charron said the investigation, which examined applications for a six-week period that ended Feb. 25, found 50 cases in which applicants provided false information on paperwork or withheld details about their financial assets.

The other 34 cases involved charges unrelated to fraud, such as not completing work requirements or job training.

Lying on the forms is a Class D misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail, said Lewiston police Lt. Mike Bussiere.

Officers have already issued summonses to four people, and are pursuing eight more cases already forwarded from the city, Bussiere said.

Each month Lewiston handles about 225 unique cases, each of which requires detailed documentation about an applicant's financial position, said Charron.

Although administrators employ a battery of tests to verify application information, rooting out fraud is difficult because of the high caseloads and applicants who lie to other state agencies that help in the verification process, Charron said.

In all, the city will save $98,920 from the 50 cases, and could recoup more if the remaining people do not return to the welfare rolls by completing requirements before their 120-day suspension of benefits is complete, she said.

"People need to know their actions have consequences," she said.

In Maine, General Assistance is a safety net of last resort for residents who cannot afford basic necessities such as food, shelter and medication. The voucher program requires disclosure of detailed financial information to determine eligibility.

The city's announcement comes ahead of a hearing Thursday in Augusta, where Charron and other advocates are expected to testify about a proposed cut to the General Assistance program, which relies on millions of dollars in reimbursements to communities.

Macdonald hinted at further action to come, effectively putting potential abusers of the system on notice. The outspoken mayor said he expects a grand jury to hand up indictments for more serious felonies related to abuse of the assistance system, he said.

"We're going to scrutinize everything," Macdonald said. "Hopefully some of them will leave town. We're going to aggressively do this."

People found to have lied or provide false information are typically barred from applying for funds for 120 days.

In Portland, the state's largest provider of aid, 103 cases of fraud were identified in the past 12 months out of 2,171 individual cases, a rate of about 3 percent, said Doug Gardner, the city's director of Health and Human Services.

During the period examined in the Lewiston investigation, that rate was closer to 15 percent, Charron said.

Last year, $13.23 million of the nearly $17.5 million in assistance was paid from state coffers, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Gov. Paul LePage has targeted the expenditure in his biennial budget, and plans to cap the expense at $10.17 million annually, which by his office's estimations could save taxpayers $6.7 million in the next two years. The measure is part of a wider cost-saving plan to close a projected $112 million gap in the Department of Health and Human Services budget.

Robyn Merrill, a senior policy analyst at the Maine Equal Justice Partners, which advocates for low-income Mainers, said her group opposes LePage's cut because it would impose arbitrary limits on assistance, rather than weigh actual needs.

Merrill said the rhetoric around fraud accusations is troubling because it has the potential to unfairly tar the thousands of deserving people who benefit from the program.

"By no means do we condone fraud, but it is concerning seeing some of the messaging around this story," Merrill said. "In truth, the vast majority of people who access General Assitance genuinely need the help."

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at: 791-6303 or at
mbyrne@mainetoday.com

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