NORWAY — A proposal before the town would pay $25,000 more in General Assistance than last year, according to figures submitted to the Budget Committee by Town Manager David Holt this week.
“We just have an awful lot of people right now,” Holt told the Budget Committee at its Tuesday night meeting. “One of the problems with our system is it really rewards those not working.”
According to figures presented by Holt, the amount of General Assistance being requested for the new fiscal year has risen to $100,000 from $75,000 last year. The total proposed budget is $110,000, including a $10,000 salary for the program administrator.
Holt, who favors changes in the law to tighten up residency and other requirements for General Assistance, said Norway seems to attract a large number of General Assistance recipients.
Part of the problem is the abundance of available housing stock in Norway, Holt said. At least 12 apartment buildings in Norway do not require a security deposit to rent, making it much easier for someone without means to settle here.
“That’s a challenge,” he said.
Committee members said they have heard of abuses of the system. One member said she knows someone who plans to move from Connecticut to Maine because of the easy availability of welfare benefits.
“There is a great migration here,” conceded Holt, who noted the residency requirements need to be changed.
“A resident is defined by Maine law as someone who slept here last night,” he said.
Holt said Norway has a volunteer work program that allows recipients to pay back the assistance by working for the town doing jobs, such as raking, sweeping and painting.
But recipients who earn extra money on their own and then report it to the General Assistance administrator have that amount automatically taken out of the next check. “There needs to be an incentive to do something else,” he said.
“We have the right to either tighten up the system or we have to change the system,” Bruce Cook, a member of the Budget Committee, said. He added that since 2004, the numbers have essentially doubled in Norway.
Although the state does reimburse the town 50 percent of its direct costs, to receive full reimbursement, Norway must reach a threshold of $136,605, according to a letter from General Assistance Program Manager Cindy Boyd of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Last year, annual town meeting voters debated the increases to the General Assistance program from $44,592 to $85,000, including a $10,000 salary for the benefits administrator. An amendment made at the meeting in 2010 by a resident to reduce the General Assistance back to the previous year’s figure failed.
State legislative committees are now mulling changes to the welfare system, including proposed changes that would require proof of at least a 90-day Maine residency to receive certain benefits. Gov. Paul LePage is also targeting longtime welfare recipients in his new fiscal year budget, including a five-year lifetime limitation to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program and tightening eligibility requirements.
The Budget Committee and selectmen are expected to meet next week to finalize the town budget, including money for the General Assistance account.
Norway voters will have an opportunity to voice their opinion when annual town meeting gets under way in June.