A decision by the City Council early Thursday has put Portland in an unusual, if not unprecedented, position among cities nationwide of providing public assistance to asylum applicants determined to be ineligible by the state.

The council’s action also means the city now will be looking for community businesses and organizations to help pay for such aid.

After an eight-hour meeting that started Wednesday and stretched into Thursday morning, the council voted 5-4 to spend $2.6 million in city funds to continue providing food, shelter, clothing and housing to the estimated 900 asylum seekers now receiving General Assistance, despite the state’s decision to no longer pick up most of the cost for that aid.

The aid is part of a new $222 million city budget that takes effect next month and also eliminates about 23 positions, including 14 layoffs. Overall, it is expected to raise property taxes by 3.1 percent, boosting Portland’s tax rate from $20 per $1,000 to $20.63. That’s an estimated $126 increase on a home with an assessed value of $200,000.

Dozens of people assured the council during the public hearing that they would gladly pay more in property taxes to provide aid to asylum seekers, although only one followed those words with action. Janet Gunn, a 78-year-old part-time instructor at local universities, presented the city with a $134 check.

“It’s putting my money where my mouth is,” Gunn said Thursday morning, after learning the council approved a proposal to continue the funding.

The council’s decision allows for contributions from private businesses, residents and philanthropic organizations to help offset the cost to taxpayers.


While the council has set aside funds for asylum seekers now receiving aid, it did not extend the aid to new arrivals who come to the city in the months ahead and ask for help. Mayor Michael Brennan said his “first calls” Thursday would be to groups such as the United Way and the Portland Chamber of Commerce “to maximize some of these funds … in order to make sure that new people who come to the city of Portland who are asylum seekers also have the opportunity to come to the city and have resources as well.”

The council’s vote to continue the aid also means the city is in the unusual legal position of providing aid to a group of non-citizens that the state government has decided is not eligible for such assistance.

The LePage administration cut off funding for the group saying federal law makes them ineligible, and a Superior Court justice agreed, ruling that Maine lacks a law that specifically authorizes such public assistance for non-citizens. Portland’s attorney said on Wednesday that based on her conversations with the U.S. State Department, municipal assistance programs for asylum-seeking immigrants are “extremely rare” and Portland could be one of the first cities in the nation to adopt one.

Although no one has publicly threatened legal action against the city, councilors questioned whether the program would stand up to a challenge.

“It sounds like our legal position is a bit tenuous,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who supported an opposing plan to provide assistance for three to six months.

Asylum seekers in Portland typically have come to the United States legally with temporary visas, but they are prohibited by federal law from working for at least six months after applying for asylum and in many cases come to rely on the state’s General Assistance program to survive. Up until last year, Maine was one of the few states to have provided that benefit.

The LePage administration stopped providing General Assistance reimbursements to the city last July, arguing the aid is a violation of a 1996 federal law because state lawmakers never passed legislation making asylum seekers eligible for it. City taxpayers already have paid an additional $5 million in benefits during the past 12 months as the city challenged the loss of state funds in court and in the Legislature.

The $2.6 million in additional aid funding approved by the council will provide assistance for at least a year – from July 1 to June 30, 2016 – for those asylum seekers currently receiving General Assistance. The solution, as approved, will not provide aid to asylum seekers who seek help after July 1.

Councilors said the plan will have a minimal impact on property taxes because the city expects to get an additional $1.7 million in state education funding, and that money would be used to offset the costs.


Councilors decided to plan for that revenue despite emails from the Maine Department of Education and the schools’ finance director saying that the funding level could change and should not be counted on because of other possible reductions in school revenue.

School Board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson said Thursday morning that she respects the council’s decision, noting it would help many children of asylum seekers in the school system. She hoped that it would not affect future allocations regarding state education funding.

“The only thing that concerns me is the approach sometimes the governor seems to take on Portland,” she said of Gov. Paul LePage’s efforts to reduce funding to the city. “But I’m not going to worry about that at the moment.”

There also were concerns about the financial details.

City staff estimated it would cost $329,000 a month to continue the existing program as is, which would translate into $3.9 million for 12 months. And the city’s finance director said that additional use of surplus funds could jeopardize the city’s credit rating, making it more expensive to borrow money.

During the meeting, Councilor Justin Costa acknowledged that there was “substantial uncertainty” around estimated revenues and costs that would offset the tax increase.

“None of us can sit here and tell you we have fully formed plans this evening,” Costa said. “There are no solutions available to this problem. I believe very strongly this is the best choice moving forward.”

Councilors Mavodones, Jill Duson and Edward Suslovic voted against the $2.6 million proposal and supported an alternative proposed by Duson.

That plan would have provided assistance for three months with an option to extend the aid by three months using private funds. Duson argued that the state needs to resume its funding and that an end date was needed to prevent the program from becoming an annual expense for the city.

Some councilors also were concerned about using state education money, as well as contingency funds, to pay for the 12-month program that the council ultimately passed.

Councilor Jon Hinck opposed both proposals because he believed the city would be breaking federal law by providing the aid in spite of the court ruling. “I don’t know how I can vote for these courageous efforts here when I think they are prohibited by law,” Hinck said.

While other councilors also were worried about running afoul of federal law, Costa said the city has the right to appeal a Superior Court ruling that the aid has not been specifically authorized. A motion has been filed to clarify that ruling, but a formal appeal has not.

Several members of the city’s legislative delegation apologized to the council and public Wednesday for not being able to preserve the funding at the state level. While majorities in both the Maine House and Senate supported making asylum seekers legally eligible for state and local aid, there was not enough support to override an expected veto by LePage.