Portland’s City Council appeared poised to continue providing emergency food, shelter and other basic needs to immigrants living in the city and awaiting asylum, at least for a while.

But councilors, who meet Wednesday night to decide the fate of the aid program and the city budget, appeared split about who would qualify for aid, how much aid the city can provide and how long the city’s property taxpayers can afford to pay for it.

Councilors interviewed Tuesday stressed that asylum seekers are a valuable and much-needed addition to the city and state, both culturally and economically. However, they differed on the ability of Portland’s taxpayers to essentially pick-up up the entire tab for General Assistance – about 80 percent of which had been provided by the state in past years.

“It’s unfortunate the city is this position,” said Councilor Justin Costa, who is teaming with a fellow councilor to push for a compromise. “There’s nothing that’s driving this other than the administration in Augusta.”

City officials did not provide copies of the various budget amendments being drafted by councilors in preparation for the meeting Wednesday, and the city also was unable to provide a copy of a legal opinion from the city attorney about whether Portland can continue such assistance without breaking federal law. But it was clear Tuesday that councilors were preparing several alternatives that could be presented Wednesday.

They could continue funding the program using property taxes; cut off asylum seekers as of July 1, which some fear would result in a crisis; continue to provide the assistance for a limited time or limit the types of assistance so the funding lasts longer. Councilors also will have to decide whether to provide aid only to those currently receiving it, or allow new people to receive aid after the new fiscal year begins July 1.

STATE ASSISTANCE BILL’S FATE UNCLEAR

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work for at least six months and many rely on General Assistance to pay for housing and other needs during that waiting period.

The LePage administration decided last year to cut off state funding for asylum seekers and other non-citizens, saying Maine has never passed a law making asylum seekers eligible for assistance, as required by a 1996 federal law.

Portland was part of a lawsuit seeking to resume the state aid, but a judge ruled that the state could not be forced to provide assistance to such immigrants.

A bill, L.D. 369, to make asylum seekers eligible was passed by the Legislature on Tuesday night, but is expected to be vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage. It’s unclear whether there are enough votes to override a veto.

The circumstances have thrust Portland’s City Council into center stage in the statewide debate about whether people seeking asylum from violence or political persecution should be eligible for General Assistance, a program typically funded by state and local money that provides vouchers for food, rent, clothing and medications. The loss of state funding is significant in Portland, where roughly 900 of the state’s estimated 1,000 asylum seekers currently live.

To continue the program for 12 months without state funding would cost $4 million to $5 million, according to city officials. The council’s $221.8 million budget already includes a property tax increase of 2.9 percent, or 58 cents, which would increase the property tax rate from $20 per $1,000 assessed value to $20.58. That would result in a estimated increase of $116 for a house with an assessed value at $200,000.

Adding $4 million to $5 million to support asylum seekers would roughly double that property tax increase to about 6 percent, resulting in a nearly $250 tax increase on that same home.

SEVERAL CITY AID PLANS IN PLAY

Advocates are pressuring the council to continue providing the assistance. They packed Council Chambers during previous budget discussions and said this week that they expect another strong showing Wednesday. An online petition launched on June 21 that calls for the aid to continue had more than 250 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

Mayor Michael Brennan, who has called on councilors to pass a budget consistent with the values of a compassionate city, did not state his position during an interview Monday and did not return calls for comment Tuesday. However, some councilors said Brennan was trying to build support to continue funding some sort of assistance program for 12 months.

Councilor Jill Duson is proposing a compromise that would avoid cutting off the assistance on July 1, but also not provide a full year of funding paid out of local property taxes.

“I just don’t think we can go with the two extremes that are presented to us,” Duson said.

Instead, she is proposing that asylum seekers who are getting benefits as of June 30 continue to be eligible for aid for an additional three to six months, allowing them time to get their federal work permits, learn English and polish their workplace skills so they can get jobs. Newly arrived asylum seekers would not be eligible.

Duson estimated that it would cost roughly $750,000 to provide assistance for three months, because the number of people getting it would gradually be reduced over time.

Councilor Nicholas Mavodones said he was open to that idea, which he described as “an off-ramp,” as was Councilor Edward Suslovic, who argued that an open-ended local assistance program would not be sustainable.

“I don’t think it’s compassionate or responsible to launch a program we’re not able to sustain,” Suslovic said. “It’s not right to give folks a false sense of security or a false sense of hope.”

Councilors Costa and David Brenerman proposed a different option in an email circulated late Tuesday. Their plan calls for creating an alternative aid program for asylum seekers paid for with $2.6 million in funds they said “are already allocated in the proposed city budget as well as state funds.” City staff would develop guidelines to administer the program. Costa and Brenerman also are proposing the creation of a “Community Support Fund” to raise private donations to help pay for the aid.

“Without that promise from the state I think we have to do as much as we can within our budget limitations to fix the issue,” Brenerman said Tuesday. “The concern I have in stopping the program in three months is we will be in the same position.”

‘NO INCENTIVE FOR THE STATE TO CHANGE’

Some councilors continued to point to the Legislature for solutions Tuesday.

Ultimately, state lawmakers, not councilors, need to enact a bill to provide the assistance, Duson said.

“I think these families have been held hostage in this conversation for months now, not knowing what is going to happen, forced to come and bear their wounds and needs in public at the State House and the council chambers, (and be) shamed for being in need,” she said. “I don’t want to put another group of people in that scenario because I know if we fund this for one year, we’ll be funding it for another year. There’s no incentive for the state to change its behavior and come back to the partnership.”

Councilor Jon Hinck also said he firmly believes that it is the state’s responsibility to provide the assistance in partnership with the city.

“Portland has played a consistent role supporting and benefiting from asylum seekers, but I’m not willing to fill the gap when the state stops its responsibility,” Hinck said.

The council will need to make a decision Wednesday while the issue is still in flux.

The Maine Municipal Association on Monday asked a Superior Court judge to clarify the ruling that on one hand allowed the state to deny General Assistance reimbursements for asylum seekers and on the other said that the administration should have gone through the state rule-making process regarding guidelines and enforcement.