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Bangor officials plan to fight LePage’s proposed general assistance cuts

Posted March 03, 2011, at 6:28 p.m.

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Should the state give cities less money for general assistance?

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BANGOR, Maine — The city would have to increase its general assistance budget by an estimated $260,000 this year and by as much as $350,000 next year if a proposal in Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget is approved.

Shawn Yardley, director of health and community services for Bangor, said the governor and several other lawmakers have suggested drastic changes to the state’s general assistance program.

State officials are expected to begin public hearings on some of those changes next week, and Yardley plans to be front and center to testify on behalf of Bangor, which he said could be disproportionately affected.

“More people are coming forward for [general] assistance than ever, but they aren’t coming in Hampden or Glenburn, they are coming in Bangor,” he said. “It’s not like we can just stop providing assistance. We’re required to by law.”

General assistance, an emergency safety net program administered by municipalities but funded in part by the state, has become an increasingly used entitlement for people struggling with finances or waiting to receive federal subsidies.

In most Maine communities, the state pays for 50 percent and the municipalities pay 50 percent. In larger service center communities where need is great, the state pays 90 percent.

Although LePage has scaled back some of his initial plans for reforming general assistance, one idea that has remained is to reduce state reimbursement for general assistance in communities such as Portland and Bangor from 90 percent to 75 percent.

Yardley said that would increase Bangor’s costs by $350,000 next year, or 15 cents on the tax rate.

Bangor city councilors passed a resolution this week directing Yardley to urge lawmakers not to pass any legislation that would create an additional administrative burden or cost for Bangor.

Councilor Geoff Gratwick said he was appalled at the proposed cuts.

“It might save money for Augusta, but it would [destroy] urban centers,” he said this week.

Added Councilor Pat Blanchette, “I don’t think we should be balancing the budget on the backs of those that have nothing.”

City councilors in Portland, which could lose an estimated $900,000 under LePage’s proposed budget, took similar action last month.

Of the $15 million spent in Maine last year on general assistance, more than $9 million of that was distributed in Portland and Bangor.

Yardley, who hired a temporary case worker earlier this year to deal with the increased general assistance caseload, said he’s all for changes that could make the program more efficient and accountable.

“I think everyone wants to have an accountable general assistance system, but you can’t approach accountability just from the side of the person receiving the help,” he said. “The only bills I’ve seen put the onus on the recipients, but I think towns and the state have a responsibility, too.”

Bangor Councilor Gerry Palmer said providing general assistance is about compassion. The alternative, he added, could force people into homelessness, or into emergency rooms or jails, thereby creating a bigger financial burden.

The welfare reform discussion, of which general assistance is a large part, is expected to take center stage next week in Augusta, and not just at the State House.

Mary Mayhew, commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Tarren Bragdon, head of the conservative Maine Heritage Policy Center and one of LePage’s transition team leaders, will host a presentation to state legislators Tuesday evening in Augusta. The topic is welfare reform.

Yardley and others have wondered why this presentation is not part of the public hearing schedule.

That event is closed to the news media.

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