The city of Portland has frozen hiring and is limiting overtime, among other measures, in anticipation of losing more than $3 million in General Assistance payments from the state because it continues to provide aid to undocumented immigrants in defiance of a new state policy, according to documents released Wednesday morning.

Interim City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian said in an email to councilors Wednesday that she met Monday with department heads, mid-level managers and union leaders about the spending controls, which also include a freeze on travel reimbursements and pre-approval for expenditures of more than $1,000.

“There are a few of you that have large projects in your district for which we have set aside large sums in this year’s operating budget,” Hill-Christian told councilors in the email. “There are also some recommended service impacts affected by reducing overtime. Once I have the complete list I will be reaching out to affected parties individually for feedback.”

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the budget reductions should not be felt by residents in any significant way.

Overtime spending will be reviewed weekly to identify savings and should only be used in emergency situations, under the guidelines given to city staff. Overtime for snow plowing, fighting fires or investigating crimes will not be affected, although some projects might take longer to complete because of reduced overtime spending, Grondin said.

New hires will be approved on a case-by-case basis, according to Hill-Christian’s memo. The city has 61 vacancies, but it’s not clear how many will be frozen and how many will be filled.

In addition, only pre-approved, pre-booked travel will be allowed and the city is halting fleet upgrades that are not funded through the capital budget.

Mayor Michael Brennan could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Portland, along with Westbrook, Lewiston, South Portland and Bangor, all have indicated they would continue to provide General Assistance regardless of immigration status despite a new state policy that the aid should not go to undocumented immigrants. The group of immigrants affected by the state policy includes a growing number of asylum seekers who are considered lawfully present in the U.S. while they try to become legal residents.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage said the state would withhold all reimbursements to communities that provide the aid in defiance of the policy. He argues that the policy change is needed to bring Maine into compliance with federal law. Limiting public assistance to full-fledged Maine citizens also became a campaign theme during LePage’s successful run for re-election.

Portland and other cities argue that they are not permitted under the state constitution to deny the aid to Maine residents who prove they are in need, regardless of citizenship status.

General Assistance is a program partially funded by the state but administered by cities and towns. It provides vouchers for rent, utilities or other basic necessities to people who have no money to cover those costs. The state reimburses municipalities between 50 percent and 90 percent of those costs.

In September, the city applied for its General Assistance reimbursement for June from the state. It was the first application since the state policy took effect. Grondin said in an email Wednesday that the state has not responded to that request.

John Martins, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the General Assistance program, did not directly answer a question about how the state is responding to reimbursement requests from municipalities that are continuing to provide aid to undocumented immigrants.

“The department will continue to act to ensure General Assistance reimbursements are distributed in a consistent manner and in accordance with federal law,” he said in an email. “As General Assistance reimbursements are currently the subject of municipality-initiated litigation, we are unable to discuss specific details at this time.”

Martins didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

Meanwhile, the city has prepared cost estimates on the impact of continuing to provide assistance to undocumented immigrants without state funding. The estimates assume the state will not help pay for aid to undocumented immigrants, but will continue to help pay for aid to other recipients.

City officials estimate that it would cost an additional $3.24 million over the course of a fiscal year. That amounts to $55 for each property taxpayer.

The projected average monthly cost is $291,500, according to documents prepared for the City Council’s Finance Committee, which meets Thursday.

There are an average of 439 General Assistance cases that involve a total of 735 undocumented immigrants each month, according to the city.

The loss estimates are based on the assumption that the state will withhold only the aid for undocumented immigrants. If the governor decides to withhold all General Assistance payments to Portland – including aid for U.S. citizens – the city’s loss would be nearly $9 million a year, Hill-Christian said.

Portland, Westbrook and the Maine Municipal Association have filed a lawsuit against the state challenging the policy, which has been called unconstitutional by state Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat.

The LePage administration has asked that the case be moved to a federal court because it’s an immigration issue. But the plaintiffs want to keep it in state court because they are arguing that the governor did not follow the state’s rulemaking procedure.

Westbrook paid out nearly $11,000 in aid to undocumented immigrants in July and nearly $10,000 in August, for which it did not seek a reimbursement from the state, according to city aid coordinator Sarah Lundin. Aid to undocumented immigrants constituted about 29 percent of the total assistance costs in each of those months, she said.

Bangor, which also indicated it would continue to provide aid to undocumented immigrants, has not needed to do so since July, said Rindy Fogler, the community services program manager. However, the city has begun requesting and scanning identification cards at the city’s homeless shelter to ensure people are in the U.S. legally, she said.

South Portland also has continued to provide aid to undocumented residents, but has not requested reimbursement from the state, City Manager Jim Gailey said.

Neither Lewiston City Manager Ed Barrett nor Social Services Director Sue Charron responded to messages seeking comment.

Staff Writer David Hench

contributed to this report.

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

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Twitter: @randybillings