LEWISTON — A proposal by Republican Gov. Paul LePage to revamp the way the state reimburses cities and towns for General Assistance payments takes clear aim at Maine’s biggest city.

Under the proposed change, Portland would lose at least $4.4 million in reimbursements, although Portland officials estimate the figure could be as high as $6 million. The city spent about $10 million on General Assistance in 2014. Bangor spent $2.1 million and Lewiston spent $748,000.

Total state spending for General Assistance is pegged at $13 million for the current fiscal year, up from about $12 million in 2012 and $11 million in 2010. In 2004 it was $5.6 million. General Assistance programs provide a safety net of last resort for those who are very poor and do not qualify for other public assistance, according to the U.S. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Towns and cities administer the program, which provides short-term help for basic needs such as food, shelter and medicine.

Sam Adolphsen, chief operating officer for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees GA for the state, on Thursday called Portland an “extreme outlier” based on the amount of assistance the city doles out compared to the state’s other cities.

“Although there is a budgeted amount in the state budget,” Adolphsen said, “expenditures are not capped at the local level. It’s essentially an entitlement program.”

The General Assistance formula change, part of LePage’s two-year state budget proposal, would pay higher reimbursement rates to cities and towns that spend less on GA.


Under the current system, the state reimburses most municipalities at 50 percent. But Portland, Lewiston and Bangor are reimbursed at 90 percent. The higher rate is triggered when a city or town spends more than 0.03 percent of its total state property valuation on General Assistance.

Under the new proposal, every municipality in Maine would be eligible for a 90 percent match from the state, but the new match is based on 40 percent of the municipality’s six-year average of expenditures, Adolphsen said. The cap would also be weighted for unemployment, so years with higher unemployment would bring greater state reimbursements.

Portland, Bangor and Lewiston are projected to lose funding under the proposal: Lewiston would lose $45,000 a year, while Portland would lose $4 million and Bangor, about $600,000.

Currently only Portland, Bangor and Lewiston are eligible for the higher reimbursement rate, but Portland spent about 13 times more than Lewiston did in 2014 and about five times as much as Bangor.

Adolphsen said the state believes Portland is mismanaging its General Assistance programs and part of the solution is to stop rewarding cities that spend more and instead provide incentives to spend less.

He said in 2009, Portland accounted for 47 percent of all state GA spending, a figure that increased to 63 percent in 2014.


“Portland, in particular, has grown tremendously in the last few years,” Adolphsen said. “Bangor and Lewiston have done a really good job of controlling their General Assistance costs and even when they hit the 90 percent (reimbursement rate), they are being careful after that of how they are spending.”

In an attempt to understand Portland’s spending, the state examined and compared city to city the number of people living in poverty and overall poverty rates.

They also examined the number of families and individuals in each city that were receiving benefits from other welfare programs, including Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Data from DHHS sent to the Sun Journal shows that Lewiston-Auburn had an average of 682 TANF cases and 8,332 SNAP cases in 2014. Portland had 452 TANF cases and 7,411 SNAP cases.

While the numbers of those in need of assistance seem similar, the spending on General Assistance is dramatically different, Adolphsen said.

Lewiston-Auburn has a combined population of just over 59,000 and a combined poverty rate of 19.8 percent. Portland’s population is 66,000 and its poverty rate is  20.6 percent.


“We hear a lot from Portland, that we have the poor people that need help,” Adolphsen said. But when DHHS broke down the General Assistance spending on a per-person-in-poverty basis, Portland’s annual cost was $750; Lewiston’s was $96.

“So clearly, there is an issue there with an extreme outlier,” Adolphsen said. “They may argue that they are a big service center and there’s a lot of individuals in poverty, but the numbers just don’t add up. There’s something wrong with the level of spending going on there.”

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the city’s GA spending is audited each year by the state and all of the General Assistance money the city has spent to date has been approved by DHHS, Brennan said.

Brennan said the poverty comparisons between cities do not capture Portland’s large homeless population or the city’s high housing costs.

He said 80 percent of its General Assistance costs go toward housing, and the idea that a $12 million General Assistance program is a huge factor in a more than $6 billion state budget was “hard to fathom”

“It’s just a myth that we are more ‘generous’ with General Assistance than other communities,” Brennan said. “We follow state law just the way every municipality in the state of Maine follows state law. If you come to Portland, you get the same benefit through the General Assistance program as if you went to Lewiston or Bangor.”


Brennan said the only exception to that was Portland provides a higher housing reimbursement because housing costs are higher in Portland.

He said Portland’s asylum-seeking immigrants make up between 30 and 40 percent of the city’s General Assistance costs and that that population is at least 10 times, “at a minimum,” the size of the one in Lewiston. 

Portland is in a legal dispute with the state over whether it is legally obligated to provide General Assistance to those asylum seekers. The city has argued that it can’t discriminate and that to change the directive on how General Assistance is granted, the state should go through an official rule-making process. The court is expected to settle the issue by the end of the month.

Brennan said comparing General Assistance expenditures to poverty rates in other cities or to TANF and SNAP enrollment numbers is like “comparing apples to oranges,” he said.

“Not everybody in Portland who is poor is receiving General Assistance, and there are people regardless of the poverty rate who qualify for General Assistance,” Brennan said.

“The way you qualify for General Assistance is by demonstrating financial need, not whether or not you are in poverty,” he said. “It’s mystifying they would use that metric to make comparisons between communities, because it totally has to do with the people in the community who are able to demonstrate financial need relative to the statute.”


Brennan said the formula proposed by the state for distributing General Assistance is “about as convoluted of a formula as anybody could come up with.”

He added, “Somebody had to sit down and say, ‘Let’s put logic aside here, let’s put rationality aside here and come up with a formula that will disadvantage the largest communities in the state and be politically more palatable to the other communities in the state,'” Brennan said.  

DHHS has recently completed an additional audit of Portland’s General Assistance spending and is expected to meet with city officials next week to review those findings, DHHS spokesman David Sorensen said.

Lewiston’s General Assistance program was audited by the state this year and according to City Administrator Ed Barrett, the city came out with “flying colors.”

Barrett said the City Council would review the effects of LePage’s budget package during a workshop meeting at City Hall at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Barrett said he couldn’t comment on how Portland or Bangor manage their General Assistance programs, but he did say those cities have homeless populations that are much larger than Lewiston’s. 


“I think there is also a difference in the nature of the three communities,” Barrett said. “Lewiston is much less of a transient community. We have people who were born here, they’ve lived here, their kids live here, their grandkids live here, and I think that provides some community cohesion where people are taking care of themselves through their families, as opposed to looking to the municipality.”

He said that same kind of dynamic seems to exist in Lewiston’s growing Somali immigrant community in that they are more self-sustaining than dependent on the city or state for help. 

Complicating matters further for both Lewiston and Portland are issues at the federal level that delay the ability of asylum-seeking immigrants to go to work. Even those who have skills or trades that could see them gainfully employed are delayed in getting jobs because they must wait between a year and 18 months for legal work papers from the federal government, Barrett said.

He said that combined with a federal refugee program that doesn’t allow federal funds to follow refugees to other cities after their initial entry city in the U.S. has left cities holding the bag for the costs of language and workforce training for refugees.

Geoff Herman, a spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, which represents 480 cities and towns, said it opposes the General Assistance formula change being proposed by LePage.

Herman said the idea that any municipality in Maine was abusing the program to “cash in” on the reimbursement rates was an illogical suggestion by DHHS staff.


“The only way you cross into that world of getting so-called 90 percent reimbursement is by spending a tremendous amount on the program,” Herman said. “No municipality in their right mind would deliberately try to spend at that threshold level in order to ring in on that higher level of reimbursement. The only municipalities that ring in on that are big cities because they have big programs, and that’s Portland, Lewiston and Bangor.”

Herman said MMA’s position is that the state should take over and administer the General Assistance program.

“A lot of the movement within our policy committee to seek to have the program just given over to the state is coming from our largest urban areas,” Herman said. “There’s movement to say, ‘OK, state, if you have all these ideas about how this program should be done, then go ahead and do it.”


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