NORWAY – Town Manager David Holt said tough decisions are going to have to be made after word was received late last week that the state’s general assistance reimbursement budget has dried up.

The news apparently filtered out Thursday and Friday through a series of messages among officials in municipalities and the Maine Municipal Association that the Department of Health and Human Services had stopped reimbursing welfare expenditures. DHHS officials say towns will be reimbursed “soon.”

Emergency assistance provides benefits to families with children in some situations when the family is destitute or homeless due to an emergency. These situations include fire, other natural disasters, termination of utility service, evictions or lack of adequate shelter. Towns are reimbursed for 50 percent of their general assistance expenditures.

“This is a controversial issue that stirs up a lot of intense opinions on both sides,” Town Manager David Holt said. “The state’s arbitrary and silent stopping of the reimbursement will force us to do business differently. As a town with a lot of apartments, we attract people from a wide region … even more so when the economy turns down.”

According to a May 7 memo from Geoffrey Green, deputy commissioner for Operations and Benefits Administration at the Department of Health and Human Services to Geoff Herman of the Maine Municipal Association, “Account transfers and federal reimbursements which comprise part of the budgeted revenue for the GA account are expected soon, and we will then be able to resume payment to municipalities. Municipalities will receive all payments due to them.”

In Norway, Holt said the general assistance caseload has more than doubled in the past two years, partly because of cutbacks in state and federal benefits and lack of jobs. Those numbers spike well above 100 cases in the middle of winter and can be as high as 40 or more (with multiple members in a household) at this time of year, he said.

With a high number of low-cost rental apartments in Norway, the town tends to attract a much higher percentage of cases than other towns in the Oxford Hills. This coming fiscal year, which begins on July 1, the town has recommended a budget of $85,000 to cover general assistance expenditures, including $10,000 for the administration of the funds, compared to this fiscal year’s budget of $44,592.

According to town records, the town has already spent over that amount by about $12,000 as of mid-March. In fiscal year 2008-09, the general assistance expenditures doubled what was actually budgeted by the end of that fiscal year.

Other towns budget much less, such as Harrison where Town Manager Bradley Plante said he has about three or four cases at the height of winter and the town spends several thousands dollars in general assistance per year.

In Oxford, where Town Clerk Ellen Morrison manages the general assistance program, the town budgets about $6,000 a year for general assistance. Morrison said she has had a high of about 15 cases and perhaps one a week in recent weeks. “I think the most is about 15. For a little town that seems like a lot,” she said.

In Paris, another town with a high general assistance caseload, $51,175 was approved by the budget committee for the next fiscal year. This fiscal year, $31,151 was budgeted and the previous year $16,000 was budgeted, according to the town budget.

Plante said he has seen no reimbursement since January when he received money for the month of December.

“It just quit coming. We were never notified,” Plante said of the $2,000 to $3,000 tab the state owes the town. The money, once received, will be put into the town’s general fund, he said.

Holt said in his opinion, the general assistance program needs some revamping. “It’s just unfair to tell us how to run the program and then not help fund it.”

Holt said that at first glance, the resolution may require towns to collectively lobby to make people aware of what has happened and, secondly, Norway needs to “push the envelope of the rules” to “get out of the business of assisting anyone who might have other alternatives and whose survival is not at risk.”

Holt told selectmen at their Thursday night meeting that in his opinion “some folks who shouldn’t get assistance do get it.”

Under state law, municipalities must provide general assistance to all eligible persons at the expense of the town. The town may not deny an applicant general assistance based on residency. According to the law, whether a person is a resident or not, if he or she presents himself to make an application for assistance, he or she must be allowed to apply and if eligible, assistance must be provided.

Holt said the program regulations should be tightened up to prevent some abuse of the program, but towns will have to collectively come up with a strategy and make tough decisions without placing the towns themselves in violation of the law.

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