RUMFORD — This western Maine town of 6,400 entered uncharted waters Tuesday night when voters rejected funding a welfare budget for the second time in as many months.
The action is unprecedented for Rumford and the state in recent history, said John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
“I've been at DHHS for four years and I haven't seen it happen before, because towns are required by law to have a (General Assistance) program,” Martins said. “In recent history, this certainly hasn't been an issue.”
Should Rumford fail to fund its General Assistance program, the state would take over and run it, Martins said. The state would bill the town but forgo reimbursing Rumford the basic match of 50 percent.
Experts at DHHS, however, didn't yet know what the deadline would be to trigger such action, he said.
It's conceivable that selectmen could recommend raising $1 for General Assistance, and if approved, run the department from the general fund account, because state law allows overruns on the budget.
At town meeting on June 8, voters — by a 965-727 tally — rejected the proposed 2010-11 welfare budget of $70,021, which was $949 less than the 2009-10 budget of $70,970.
Selectmen by a 4-1 vote reduced it to $60,000 and tried again 45 days later. That amount was rejected Tuesday by a vote of 190-115.
Selectmen must determine another amount within 10 days, convene a public hearing within 30 days, and hold an election in 45 days each time the proposed amount is rejected.
Other towns around Rumford approved their proposed amounts at town meetings. Mexico's is $45,000; Dixfield's is $10,000; and Peru's, $2,000.
Of those, Mexico pays Rumford $5,000 a year to have Rumford General Assistance Director Thelma Giberson handle the welfare account in Mexico.
Rumford Selectman Mark Belanger and some residents say that's not nearly enough to handle Mexico's claims.
In Giberson's 2009-10 Rumford budget of $70,970, she requested $33,520 for her wages and was paid $32,301; $2,150 for office supplies and spent $1,708; and $35,300 for clients and awarded $48,637.
In federal and state reimbursements, she received $19,490 from DHHS and is waiting to get $4,453 more that is owed; $3,698 for Social Security Income; and $750 from clients, for a total expenditure minus the reimbursements of $54,255.
Giberson took over from Peggy Turner as director in 1997.
Selectmen have discussed reducing the position to part time and reducing office time from five days a week to one or two. Giberson has threatened to quit if her hours are cut.
In the 1993-94 welfare budget, voters OK'd $115,873, but after reimbursements, only $45,371 was spent, according to town records.
Since then, successive budgets have for the most part decreased to this year's initial $70,021. The actual amounts spent minus reimbursements have fluctuated from a low of $28,456 in 1997-98, to this past year's high of $54,255.
“Last year's average taxpayer-homeowner in Rumford paid $1,436.95 (in taxes) and the impact for welfare was $8.92, so this puts it in some perspective to know what they were paying on average," Town Manager Carlo Puiia said.
The recession and high unemployment likely sparked the $8,000 increase from $38,430 spent in 2007-08 to the $46,836 spent in 2008-09.
According to Maine Department of Labor statistics for non-seasonally adjusted unemployment, Rumford went from a labor force of 11,130 with 10,562 people employed and a 5.1 percent unemployment rate in January 2000, to a 10.3 percent rate in January 2009 and 9,627 employed among a labor force of 10,733.
That jobless rate peaked alarmingly at 15.1 percent in May 2009 — more than 7 percent higher than the state rate — and was 13.3 percent this past May with 7,950 people employed among a labor force of 9,170.
That's more than 5 percent higher than the state and 4 percent higher than the national rate.
“Throughout the recession, rim counties, or the more rural areas like Rumford, tend to have higher unemployment than urban and coastal areas,” Maine Department of Labor spokesman Adam Fisher said.
“This is due to declines in employment in natural resource-based industries, which tend to be concentrated there,” Fisher said.
So, what's happening in Rumford, and is an organized effort defeating proposed amounts?
'Sign of the times'
Puiia, Giberson and former selectman Frank DiConzo don't think any group has orchestrated the defeats.
“I think it's somewhat a sign of the times, that people are fed up with our government system, having assistance of this nature, and it's too bad that they associate fraud with the entire group that use that, because that's certainly not the case,” Puiia said.
He attributed the rejections to people taking information from editorials or letters to the editor as factual when they're merely opinions.
“It makes it a difficult situation for a town to have a fair vote or an accurate vote when people don't know the issue accurately or 100 percent,” Puiia said.
“I think there's a lot of misinformation out there. There's some sort of consensus that people are receiving subsidized housing, food stamps and other federal and state (benefits), and they are making the assumption that these people are also collecting welfare,” he said.
That's not true, Martins said, and statistics back him up.
According to the latest Maine DHHS figures — the Geographic Distribution of Programs and Benefits for June 2010 for Rumford — 2,643 unduplicated individuals got one federally mandated benefit, among 1,461 unduplicated cases.
* 156 cases of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
* 295 children on TANF.
* 935 cases of people getting food supplements (formerly food stamps) program, with 1,826 individuals getting food supplements.
Conversely, Giberson said that of 25 applications for General Assistance last month, she helped 19 families who qualified. She averages 18 to 22 cases a month, but that fluctuates depending on the time of year and what's happening.
“We don't do TANF here or even food stamps,” Giberson said, agreeing with Puiia that it's a common public misconception that they do.
“General Assistance helps people who live in Rumford," Giberson said. "I give them money for rent, lights, food, non-food, and fuel for the certain cold months from September through May and that's only 50 gallons a month.
As winter sets in, she can give them more, but if they have income, they must use that for basic needs.
For example, single individuals only get $87 for monthly rent; $101 with lights included.
It's not free money, however. They have to sign an agreement that they will reimburse Rumford for what they receive in General Assistance.
Giberson said anyone can enter her office and apply for it, and say they want to live in Rumford, and state law requires her to help them.
However, only people with incomes of less than $480 per month will get anything, and only if they can show how they spent their money. Paying for cable and telephone services are considered misspent money.
“Most people I have, have no income and are waiting for disability from Social Security,” Giberson said.
Former selectman DiConzo disagrees with Puiia, in part, attributing the unprecedented budget rejections to an increased awareness of the issues.
“Personally, I think it's just individual people as voters of Rumford, and they're tired of the trends that have been in Rumford in the past,” said DiConzo, who has worked on town and school budgets for 21 years.
“The Welfare Department should be run totally differently," he said. "What we have to pay to run that program is way beyond our means. With a town our size, I think it should be run right out of the town manager's office.”
Doing so, he said, would burden him immensely and could lead to fraud because he wouldn't have time to dedicate to General Assistance, put qualified applicants to work and supervise them like Giberson can.
“That's why Mexico chose to have Rumford do their work, because it took their manager away from duties that were more important,” Puiia said.
Rumford had a full-time employee and a part-time worker running the General Assistance program many years ago, Puiia said.
"So, we have reduced our staff, and actually $60,000 is almost a 15 percent cut from what the proposed budget was," Puiia said of the initially proposed $70,021 budget.
"So, I'm a little bit puzzled by this, because normally the character of this community would support helping the needy. But I think it's become that they feel that welfare is 100 percent abused, and that's not the case, because by having a full-time director, you eliminate that."
Puiia said demand for General Assistance has been slightly high on the housing end.
Rumford and Mexico both have extremely old housing stock, with a high number of multi-family units that create a low-rent-type district.
"So, for those people that are living on less, or lower incomes, it attracts them because they get more for their dollar here for rent, but the jobs aren't here," Puiia said.
"A lot of times it might be people living on disability that are looking to stretch their dollars, so we're faced with that situation, that we have an overstock of housing," he said.
Another concern people have is the occasional influx of new faces they perceive as looking for welfare handouts, Puiia said.
“So I think there's the assumption that if they appropriate less, we'll be obligated to service them less, and that's not true,” Puiia said. “We are governed by the state of Maine under that program, so we have to treat everybody the same, and if they qualify for assistance, we're pretty much obligated to rend that assistance.”
There may be a lot of new faces, but they don't come to her office, Giberson said. "So, either they have benefits or whatever they got for disability."
DiConzo wants the town to start discouraging people from coming to Rumford seeking handouts.
"We have to take care of the people who live here who really need it, like the elderly," DiConzo said. "We just can't take people in who are coming here for welfare. Until that's done, we'll be in this situation all the time."
But until recession's tidal wave and high unemployment fully recede, Rumford is obligated to rend assistance to people who qualify for it. Puiia doesn't see an end in sight.
"We had such a downturn in the economy that people in the community lost jobs or did not get rehired for seasonal work," he said.
"And when you look at it, how many people are really one paycheck away from requiring assistance from the government? God help us all if it gets to that point."