Federal funds to aid Mainers still available

Posted May 18, 2010, at 10:34 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Less than half of the state’s $39 million share of a $5 billion fund in the Recovery Act set aside to help needy families weather the recession has been used or obligated, but not for a lack of effort say officials at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“We have several initiatives under way,” DHHS Commissioner Brenda Harvey said. “We put together ideas that would help the people we have here that are TANF recipients.”

TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, is the state’s principal welfare program and provides both cash assistance and training programs to help recipients find work. The state’s largest use of the Recovery Act fund to date is an estimated $6.54 million this budget year to pay for the increased caseload as a result of the recession.

“For example, Maine State Housing was very interested in working with us to help those in danger of becoming homeless because they couldn’t pay their mortgage because they had lost their job in this recession,” Harvey said.

That program used $200,000 from MSHA to draw down $800,000 in federal funds and all of that has been distributed. Unlike many federal matching programs, the state does not have to put up cash to match the federal funds. The match can come from local governments, nonprofits or private contributions.

An example of that is Pine Tree Legal Assistance that provided the match to bring in approximately $180,000 to provide legal services for poor Mainers facing evictions or other legal issues. But the state’s largest proposal for use of the funds has yet to be approved by federal officials.

“We have not heard from ACF [the Administration for Children and Families] on our utility assistance proposal,” Barbara Van Burgel, director of the state Office of Integrated Access and Support said Tuesday. “We have been back and forth with them and I hope we get an answer soon.”

The program would have participating electric utilities write off 20 percent of a family’s debt owed the utility and that would be used to bring in between $10 million and $15 million federal dollars to pay the remainder of the bill. Van Burgel said many of the families are at risk of having their electricity discontinued because of the overdue amounts they owe and their inability to pay the bill.

Another initiative awaiting approval is a “food box” proposal that would provide a box containing $100 worth of food to eligible families. That is a collaborative effort with the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland and expenditures could reach $1 million.

Harvey said ACF has approved the state using money that had already been appropriated for General Assistance costs to cities and towns as the match to draw down federal funds for one-time payments to the municipalities.

“The first checks went out last week,” she said. “I believe that was $900,000 and there will be more.”

In a memo to Gov. John Baldacci she estimated that program could reach $1.5 million in payments when it is completed this summer.

Van Burgel called another program a “win-win.” It uses $300,000 matched with state funds to train current TANF recipients to work in claims processing for the private company that will be processing Medicaid claims starting this summer.

“We have seven in the program now and we hope to have seven more later,” she said.

But even if ACF approves all that has been proposed, that still leaves several million dollars allocated to the state under the Recovery Act unused.

“I am very concerned about that,” Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee said. “I stated that concern several months ago.”

He said the panel questioned Harvey and other DHHS officials last fall about the use of the one-time federal funds. He said other states had been successful in accessing the funds last summer and he wants to make sure the state gets all of the allocated funds to poor Maine families.

The concern is bipartisan. Sen. Richard Rosen of Bucksport is the GOP senator on the panel.

“We need to make sure these funds are used,” he said. “If it is pressure on the federal government or if it is coming up with a different mechanism to come up with the match, that should be on our agenda.”

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