LEWISTON — The rising number of asylum-seekers requesting assistance means the city has to reappropriate $87,000 to increase staffing in the Department of Social Services, much to the frustration of Mayor Bob Macdonald.
Last year, the state legislature passed a law requiring Maine to support asylum-seekers for 24 months, which Macdonald says has made Lewiston a “magnet for these people.”
He said Wednesday, “We’re one of the poorest cities in Maine and they’re all coming here. We can’t afford this.”
Social Services Director Sue Charron requested a staffing increase for her department to make up for the rise in General Assistance clients. The City Council approved the request at Tuesday night’s meeting by a vote of 4-3. Councilors Michael Lachance, Shane Bouchard and Timothy Lajoie voted against the motion.
Charron’s request was for an additional full-time caseworker and to increase a part-time receptionist position to full time. This raises their staff from five and a half to seven.
Approval of these staffing additions will cost $87,133. However, only $50,828 is needed to fund the seven months remaining in the fiscal year.
Funding is coming from two accounts in the city’s General Fund. Of the $50,828, $32,980 is coming from the city’s pension plan account and $17,848 is coming from the Maine Municipal Employee Health Trust.
“Inadequate staff numbers force us to put some tasks on the back burner — reviewing files, validating work searches, prompt (Department of Health and Human Services) verification, tracing and reporting, all of which are necessary for client, staff and fiscal responsibility,” Charron wrote in her request.
City Administrator Ed Barrett said Wednesday there has been a “dramatic increase of individuals seeking assistance,” growing from 87 in the 2013 fiscal year to 250 in the most recent fiscal year. “And that number continues to show an increase.”
Macdonald said asylum-seekers — political refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. — are “flooding in” at the rate of 100 a month.
The city’s Social Services staff is “very stressed and there’s a lot of stuff we have to go through,” the mayor said. “It’s not like getting a normal citizen on welfare.”
Barrett said the complexity is largely due to language and cultural barriers. Caseworkers must also do a more detailed analysis of immigration status to follow state guidelines.
“Asylum-seekers make up the majority of the immigrant population and these cases are particularly complex,” Charron noted in her request.
“This is a new level — much more work,” Macdonald said Wednesday. “The money we’re spending is not being reimbursed at the same time frame. It’s really bad; this could become a crisis.”
The state is required to reimburse 70 percent of the money spent to assist asylum-seekers, but Macdonald said because of the extra cost of interpreter services, which does not get reimbursed, it’s more like 50 percent.
“It’s very possible to have to staff even more people soon,” Macdonald said. “This is what we’re facing. I can only think it’s gonna get worse.”
“The federal government won’t do anything about it,” Macdonald said. “We’ve asked for help and we’ve had none. Four years ago, I asked for money to educate asylum-seekers. I’m still waiting.”