AUGUSTA — A Wilton Republican said Wednesday if the state wants its General Assistance program run with fairness and consistency, it should take over administration of the program, which currently is run by town and city officials.

“I am tired of the argument about one town not doing this the right way,” state Sen. Tom Saviello told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee during a public hearing on his bill, LD 632. 

“If we need to do it the right way, then the state needs to do it so it is consistent,” Saviello said.

Saviello said the Maine Department of Health and Human Services would be the best agency to determine a person’s eligibility for help in a financial crisis.

“Although municipalities are mandated to provide the service according to state law and rule, these procedures are oftentimes interpreted by different interest groups involved in the process,” Saviello said. “It leads to finger-pointing and assignment of blame and most of the time it’s laid at the feet of the municipal office trying to do the best it can.”

City and town officials are “under continuous scrutiny by advocates, policymakers and property-tax payers,” Saviello said.

General Assistance is a state and locally funded program that provides short-term and immediate financial help to a person in an unexpected crisis. The benefit, based on financial need, helps with basics such as housing, food and medicine.

The state’s budget for the program is set at about $13 million a year, up from $5.6 million in 2004. 

Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year state budget proposal looks to reform the way the state reimburses municipalities for what they spend on the program.

Under the current system, the state reimburses most municipalities at 50 percent. But the state’s largest cities, 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 would be based on 40 percent of the municipality’s six-year average of expenditures. 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 per year, while Portland would lose $4 million and Bangor, about $600,000.

Portland’s General Assistance spending, which was about 13 times more than Lewiston’s in 2014 and about five times as much as Bangor, has faced criticism and scrutiny from the LePage administration, which has called the city “an extreme outlier.”

But Portland’s mayor has defended its spending, noting that the city operates the state’s largest homeless shelter and is home to the state’s largest population of asylum-seeking immigrants who are ineligible for most other programs as they await legal permission from the federal government to go to work.

Kate Dufour, a lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association, which represents nearly 500 cities and towns in the state, said local officials are so frustrated with the program and ever-changing rules and reimbursement rates that the association’s 70-member policy committee agreed the state should administer the program.

Town and city officials are “incredibly frustrated,” Dufour said. 

“We are, by the taxpayers sometimes, accused of being too generous; by advocates for low-income individuals, we are sometimes accused of being too miserly,” she said. “Now even the state has jumped on the bandwagon of telling us we expend too much or too little. We can’t do anything right.”

She said if lawmakers believe the state is spending too much on the program, lawmakers should change eligibility standards.

“Manipulate the segments of law that require assistance to be provided,” Dufour said. “We provide assistance according to statute, and then the state comes in and says, ‘We are only going to fund X percent of that.’ That’s not fair; we are not being treated like partners.”

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said the Maine Mayors Coalition was united in support of returning the program to state management.

But Sam Adolphsen, chief executive officer for DHHS, said the current design of the program is “wise, in that it allows those individuals who understand the circumstances and needs in their local community to make good decisions regarding those members of their town who will receive welfare benefits.”

He said he believed it was being done effectively across the state, “with some exceptions that we are working through with municipalities.”

Saviello’s bill along with several others aimed at reforming the General Assistance program are scheduled for a work session before the committee on April 28. The committee will likely vote on a recommendation for the full Legislature before sending the bill to the state Senate for consideration.

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