RUMFORD — After learning that the town has been underfunding the General Assistance budget for the past five years by several thousand dollars, selectmen agreed to continue that trend.

They unanimously approved a budget of $65,000, which is $28,406 less than the selectmen’s initial proposal of $93,406 that voters defeated June 10 at the town meeting referendum. The vote was 773-700.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Greg Buccina, who made the motion at a meeting Thursday night, added the caveat that any General Assistance reimbursement money returned to the town by the state be placed in the General Assistance account.

Previously, town officials had placed that revenue in the General Fund — the same fund that money has been taken from to cover the shortfall in the General Assistance budgets. That revenue has ranged from $47,703 in fiscal year 2011-12 to an anticipated $44,000 this year.

Town Manager John Madigan started the discussion, reading into the record an analysis of Rumford’s General Assistance budgets and actual money spent from 2006-07 through 2013-14. It revealed an alarming increase being driven mostly by state policies and Rumford’s abundance of available housing.

The budget in 2006-07 was $64,200, the amount spent was $62,341 and the state reimbursement at 50 percent was $19,693. By 2009-10, the budget was $70,970, the amount spent jumped to $82,048, and the state reimbursement was $33,391.

“Here’s what obviously caused some of the concern with the town,” Madigan said. “Things were starting to change.”

In 2010-11, the town pared the budget to $35,000, but $55,134 was spent and the state reimbursement was $35,434.

In 2011-12, the budget was $55,494, but $93,303 was spent, and the revenue was $47,703. Last year, Rumford budgeted $69,469, spent $102,488, and received $42,523 from the state.

“And this year through today, … we budgeted $59,900 and we spent $122,327,” Madigan said. The state reimbursement was $42,185 as of Thursday, but will be $44,000 by June 30.

“If I look at the worst culprit here, it’s the client rents,” Madigan said.

He read those numbers into the record starting with $24,358 in 2006-07 to $35,577 in 2010-11.

“Then the big change jumped from $35,577 to $59,474 in 2011-12,” Madigan said. “Last year was $60,435, and this year, $78,784.

“What is interesting with those last three years is that coincides with the state changing the (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) policy, and that policy change was once you’ve been on TANF for five years, you’re off. Period,” he said. “And so there’s no place else for them to go, so they go to General Assistance.”

TANF is financial assistance to keep children in their homes while the family is temporarily unable to support itself, according to www.benefits.gov. While receiving assistance, parents or caretaker relatives work on an employment plan to become self-supporting.

“We have a supply of available housing,” Madigan said. “That’s one of our problems.”

According to Rumford General Assistance Director Thelma Giberson, 15 new clients who have qualified for General Assistance moved into Rumford since January from another town, due to the available housing, he said.

Madigan read state law that says municipalities “shall provide General Assistance to all eligible persons at the expense of that municipality.”

He also read the definition of a resident: a person who is physically present in a municipality and intends to remain there to establish a home and has no other residence.

“These are part of our problems,” Madigan said. “People come in and they’re entitled by the state to stay in this town and if they can find an apartment, they’re eligible. This is the rigidity of the state law: ‘We shall help them.'”

He estimated that for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, Rumford is close to being $50,000 in the red. Of the $122,327 spent this year, taxpayers are footing about $70,000 of the General Assistance costs, give or take a few thousand dollars, Madigan said.

“We’ve always budgeted what we think the total cost of the program is going to be, because that really is the authority to spend it, but we haven’t done that for four years,” he said. “So all that’s happened is we have to pay these costs, which have come out of the fund balance, which is being used every year to reduce the tax commitment.”

Madigan said the board’s best estimate in February when it proposed the budget was $93,406. But with the addition of 15 more clients since January, he said that would explain why the final amount was so far off.

“I couldn’t in any good conscience recommend to the voters anything less than $122,000,” he said. “I know it’s a lot of money. But how can we tell them this is the real expense of this in our town? We can’t just sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s something different than it is.”

He recommended a budget of $120,000, with wording in the article that officials anticipate $50,000 in refunds from the state, so that the net cost to the taxpayer would be $70,000.

“This is unbelievable to me,” Selectman Mark Belanger said after rattling off figures of what he said other towns such as Jay and Windham are spending for General Assistance.

“I can’t even fathom that we’re spending this kind of money,” Belanger said. “It just doesn’t make any sense, and I just think it’s too available.”

“I beg to differ,” Madigan said. “I’m sorry.”

“To John’s point, the actuality of what we spend is $122,327 on General Assistance for this fiscal year,” Buccina said.

He suggested changing past practices and placing the state reimbursements into the General Assistance account to reduce the amount needed from taxation.

Belanger suggested cutting back the hours that the office is open and Giberson’s hours to discourage people seeking assistance.

Selectman Jeff Sterling said the board did that in 2010-11 when it took three tries to get a budget, and it was reduced to $35,000.

“One of the theories at the time was that if the office was open less time, less people would show up,” Sterling said. “That didn’t happen. The evidence shows that her caseload goes up and up and up.”

Sterling said selectmen have picked numbers at random for years to mollify voters. However, he said, that doesn’t reflect the reality of what’s happening as revealed by Madigan’s analysis.

After more discussion, Sterling motioned to approve $120,000 as the budget, but it was defeated 3-2. Buccina, Belanger and Frank DiConzo voted against it; Sterling and Brad Adley voted in favor.

Buccina motioned for $65,000 and adding the state reimbursement into the General Assistance budget. It was unanimously approved, but Madigan said he had to check the legality of doing that and how to write the warrant article.

The board did not set a date for the special town meeting but will revisit it this month.

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