A professional association of General Assistance administrators is urging Maine towns to band together and buck Portland’s efforts to bill them for use of the city’s emergency shelter.

A few days after Maine Sunday Telegram’s Sept. 2 report on Portland’s new billing practice, the Maine Welfare Directors Association sent an email to its members, advising them not to pay Maine’s largest city.

“We believe that the City of Portland has misinterpreted the language in the ordinances, we will issue a formal statement later this week regarding this,” Jay Feyler, the association’s president and Union’s town manager, wrote on Sept. 4. “In the meantime I would recommend that you NOT pay them for any invoices received.”

The next day, Feyler said that municipalities are responsible for paying Portland only if someone eligible for General Assistance is denied help in their hometown or referred to Portland by a town official. He said state law defines residency as being “physically present in a municipality with the intent of remaining in that municipality.”

Portland’s attorneys argue that its shelters are an institution, like a hospital or a hotel: A person does not become a resident of the institution’s town just because someone shows up there in an emergency. The city argues that the law allows the city to investigate the “municipality of responsibility” to recoup costs for aid that should have been provided by another town or city.

“Just as with the hospital example, where a resident of Biddeford requires shelter … and finds that shelter in Portland, they do not automatically become a resident of Portland,” city attorney Jennifer Thompson wrote to the state last week. “Instead, Biddeford remains the municipality of responsibility for so long as their resident is temporarily residing in a Portland ‘institution.'”

CITY SHELTERS SEE RECORD NUMBERS

The dispute is the latest escalation in a long-running controversy over Portland’s homeless shelters, which have been seeing record numbers this year. The city operates two shelters – a family shelter and the Oxford Street Shelter for adults. For the last decade, more than two-thirds of the people staying in these shelters have not been Portland residents and about one-third come from other Maine towns.

As of August, nearly 41 percent of the people staying at the Oxford Street Shelter were from other Maine communities. That’s up from the 37.5 percent for all of last year. The shelter can accommodate 154 people a night sleeping on thin mats on the floor, plus 75 more at overflow sites.

Portland’s new billing process, rolled out in June, was developed with state input. Between June and August, Portland sent bills to 17 communities and notified over a dozen more that they can expect bills. City officials said, so far, they have billed for just over $1,000.

The city has been billing municipalities when they can prove an individual from that community has been staying at the shelter. And they are only billing for individuals who are eligible for General Assistance, even though Portland allows anyone to stay there. Even then, the city is seeking only the local portion of the cost of a bed night established by the state, which in Portland is $33.40. The state reimburses Portland for 70 percent of that cost, so other municipalities are only being billed the other 30 percent, or $10.02 for each night a former resident stays at the shelter. The largest bill to date has been $380 billed to Westbrook, the top origin community outside of Portland, based on the city’s intake data.

Portland officials are awaiting additional state guidance in the wake of Feyler’s advice to General Assistance administrators, which city officials say has led to more negative responses to its invoices. And City Manager Jon Jennings is taking it a step further.

“We’re still seeking a meeting with the Department of Health and Human Services commissioner,” Jennings said. “We’ve asked to have an expedited meeting with the commissioner on that. We’re obviously within our right to seek reimbursement for GA-specific clients.”

BIDDEFORD A VOCAL CRITIC

Portland long has had a policy of providing anyone in need with emergency shelter, but some city officials are beginning to wonder whether the city’s taxpayers should be shouldering the financial burden for an increasingly regional service.

Westbrook, South Portland and Biddeford are regularly the other top Maine communities where people say they lived before showing up at Portland’s shelter. But Biddeford is among the more vocal critics of Portland’s policy. A copy of their response to Portland was included by Feyler as a model for other municipalities.

Biddeford’s GA administrator, Kristen Barth, notes differences in GA guidelines in the two communities. Biddeford, she said, requires applicants to seek employment at a minimum of 15 places a week to receive benefits and the state has a lower maximum for assistance. Biddeford received a bill from Portland for someone who had income, she said.

Portland’s ordinance has job requirements, but applying to a minimum number of jobs does not appear to be one of them.

“Mr. Doe has never applied for assistance or contacted the City of Biddeford’s General Assistance office,” Barth said. “The City of Biddeford did not move or transport that applicant to Portland. Mr. Doe went to Portland by his own free will and declined to answer if he would prefer to live in Biddeford.”

Jennings has said the City Council may need to discuss its open-door shelter policy, which was established by former City Manager Robert Ganley in the 1980s in response to a homeless encampment that had sprung up at City Hall to protest a shelter closing.

And last week, City Councilor Kim Cook suggested at a Housing Committee meeting that councilors have that discussion in the context of studying whether it should build one to three new shelters in the city. Such a discussion is warranted, she said, because the state stopped paying the shelter’s operating costs in 2015. No date has been set to take up the issue, she said.

“I strongly believe that we must undertake a re-evaluation of whether we, as one city in this state, should continue to provide this statewide service as we have in the past,” Cook said in a memo to the council. “To be clear, I’m not proposing that we stop providing emergency shelter in Portland, I am simply asking that we, as a council, agree to begin the process of reexamining our policies and our financial obligations regarding these services and to open a dialogue with other communities and state elected officials about how providing emergency shelter can be shared in a fair and equitable way.”

Portland’s new billing policy also has been questioned by Mayor Ethan Strimling, who doesn’t believe the revenue is worth the staff effort. He also opposes any effort to restrict access to the city’s shelters.

Portland has been trying to get other communities to help support its homeless shelter since 2015, when the LePage administration upended a longstanding practice of paying for the shelter’s operational costs. That agreement dated to the 1990s and allowed the city to presume that anyone staying at the shelter was eligible for General Assistance. At the time, paying for operation costs at the shelter was a cheaper alternative to paying for hotel rooms.

CITY’S SHELTER COSTS INCREASED

A state audit in 2015, however, revealed that some long-term shelter residents had significant financial resources. That prompted the state to begin reimbursing the city only for people who were eligible for General Assistance. Instead of only paying $28,000 for the shelter’s $2.7 million costs, Portland taxpayers last year paid $1.2 million of the $3.3 million of the total costs.

City officials had tried to work with the Maine Welfare Directors Association in the past to get communities to provide financial support for the shelter, but was met with resistance. Portland officials also made several attempts to change state law to make it easier to bill other communities, but ultimately failed.

“We have dealt with this matter on several occasions with the City of Portland as they have introduced several bills in Augusta to clarify the ordinance allowing them to bill other communities,” Feyler said in a follow-up message to members. “The law changes have not prevailed for good reason, as the residency issue is very difficult to trace and would cost more in staff time than what you would receive back.”

The new billing practice was set up with the guidance and the blessing of state Department of Health and Human Services, which is expected to release additional guidance to communities in response to Feyler’s advice.

DHHS spokeswoman Emily Spencer previously said the state supported Portland’s efforts.

“The guidance provided to the city of Portland and other municipalities outlined that the GA law and regulation regarding ‘municipality of responsibility’ entails required contribution to Portland shelter costs from another municipality if it is the individual’s primary residence,” Spencer said on Aug. 24. “We recognize the need for this assistance and support Portland in its effort to apply the law so that the city is not unfairly absorbing another municipality’s appropriate expenditures. Our guidance also outlined the need for a notice to, or agreement with, the original municipality before granting shelter assistance.”

Spencer said Friday the state had not yet issued any additional guidance to help resolve the dispute.

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

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