LEWISTON — The city will hitch its General Assistance eligibility requirements to state rules, councilors agreed Tuesday.

City Administrator Ed Barrett said it makes more sense for the city to simply refer to the state’s requirements than to create its own set of requirements.

“I would not be surprised if once again this year, there is some kind of court case to determine if the state’s regulations do represent the intent of the Legislature,” Barrett said. “So for a period of time, we will continue to be caught in the middle between different definitions of who is and who is not eligible.”

The council agreed. Six councilors and Mayor Robert Macdonald voted to support the change. Councilor Don D’Auteuil was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

Councilors will vote on the matter at their next meeting.

“By voting on this, we tie what we do to what the state is willing to reimburse us for,” Barrett said. “That becomes our guidance for General Assistance.”

General Assistance payments account for $844,505 in the 2015-16 budget. That’s about 1.9 percent of total municipal spending. That money goes to provide financial assistance for necessities such as rent, groceries, medicine, utilities and funeral and ambulance expenses.

The state will repay about $499,000 of that to the city, according to budget estimates.

Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services moved earlier this year to disallow the use of state funds for General Assistance distributed to undocumented immigrants. 

A state Superior Court ruled in May that communities such as Lewiston are not required to pay people without legal status. They can choose to do so, but the state is not required to reimburse those payments.

Lewiston stopped accepting new asylum-seekers in its General Assistance program in July. Those receiving financial assistance from the city at that point were allowed to continue indefinitely.

Legislators updated state law, saying that anyone in the country legally and following legal practice to become a citizen is eligible for General Assistance, but only for two years.

Earlier this month, councilors considered adopting ordinances to define people seeking immigrant status and those living in the U.S. with the permission of the federal Department of Homeland Security as qualifying for aid.

But Barrett said that definition could change this year.

“The state sent out draft regulations the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and those varied somewhat from what we had discussed,” Barrett said. “What they have proposed is not final. There is a public hearing Dec. 17 and it is subject to being changed again and then it will have to go through the review process with the state Attorney General. I don’t know what she’ll have to say.”

Instead, Barrett recommended the city simply link to state rules, saying the city will not pay benefits to a person if the state won’t reimburse the city for the payment.

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