February 2, 2013

Portland mayor: General Assistance cuts would swamp state

Because it provides more aid than most communities, Portland faces a potential catastrophe, Michael Brennan warns.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – The possibility that the state will run out of money to support General Assistance is a potential catastrophe for Portland and other urban communities, says Mayor Michael Brennan.

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Portland Mayor Michael Brennan

Gregory Rec / Staff Photographer

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Gov. Paul LePage

AP

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If a proposed $10.17 million cap on state funding is adopted by the Legislature, the subsidy could run out before the end of the fiscal year June 30 and municipalities could stop providing rental vouchers and other aid. And that could send more people to communities like Portland for help.

"This is a tsunami that would swamp the state," Brennan said.

General Assistance is a safety net for struggling residents that has existed in some form since Maine became a state. It's mandated by the state but run by cities and towns, which are reimbursed 50 percent of their costs by the state.

Portland is one of a few communities that get a higher level of subsidy -- 85 percent for a portion of the program -- because they provide more assistance.

The city used the program to give aid to 4,156 individuals and families in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012, and demand for help has grown since then, according to city data.

City officials, worried about the loss of state funding, discussed the potential impacts Friday with state legislators who are working their way through the governor's proposed mid-year spending cuts to balance the state budget.

Gov. Paul LePage proposed the $10.17 million cap to help close a reported $112 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget for the current year. It's unclear when that cap will be reached, but city officials believe it means that funding could run out as soon as May.

Municipalities would no longer be required to provide assistance. If a municipality chose not to fund the program, residents in need would have go without aid until the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, or ask for help in another community.

"This proposal is one of the many difficult but necessary changes that are a part of the state budget proposal," said DHHS spokesman John Martins.

Rep. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland, who serves on the Legislature's budget-writing committee, equated the proposed cap to allowing public safety programs to lapse.

"It think it's analogous to shutting down the fire department for three months and saying, 'Be careful,'" Jorgensen said.

City Councilor John Anton was an affordable-housing expert and non-voting member of the General Assistance Working Group, appointed by the last legislature to study the program.

He testified against the cap Monday before the Appropriations and Health and Human Services committees.

"In proposing this cap, the governor disregards the efforts of the GA working group and instead seeks to institute an arbitrary cap for the state's safety net program," Anton said in written testimony. "Further, establishing a cap on general assistance does nothing to address the needs of Maine's most vulnerable population."

Martins said the $10.17 million cap is not arbitrary. It represents the level of funding in the state's budget, he said.

Portland is experiencing a record level of homelessness. Last summer, its shelters were so full that the city used its General Assistance office for overflow sleeping space.

State General Assistance money makes up a significant portion of the budget for the city's two shelters, said Doug Gardner, Portland's director of health and human services.

The city's Oxford Street Shelter has a budget of $1.9 million, with $1.1 million from state General Assistance and $275,000 from property taxes. The Family Shelter's budget is $620,000, with $195,000 coming from state General Assistance and $85,000 from property tax.

Gardner said the city had spent $3.7 million on General Assistance at this point in the last fiscal year, and has already spent $4.5 million in this fiscal year, a 22 percent increase.

Roughly 85 percent of General Assistance funds are spent on vouchers to help residents pay rent. Nine percent is spent on vouchers to buy food, Gardner said.

That trend toward housing highlights the need for tough decisions about the program, said Martins, who estimated that 87 percent of General Assistance funding statewide is spent on housing.

"It was not the intent of General Assistance to be a housing program," Martins said.

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, asked Friday if the city has a plan for handling the cuts, should they be approved by the Legislature.

Brennan said the city is looking to the Legislature for help. If Portland funds assistance locally and surrounding communities don't, those in need could flock to the city for help.

"Our contingency plan is the Legislature," Brennan said. "If it's not a shared contingency plan, it would be catastrophic."

 

Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@pressherald.com

Twitter: @randybillings

 

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