Portland says it can be a model for Maine to reduce welfare spending

Michael Brennan speaks to a reporter in front of City Hall in November.
Michael Brennan speaks to a reporter in front of City Hall in November.
Posted March 20, 2012, at 8:56 p.m.
Last modified March 21, 2012, at 8:48 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — City officials say steps they’ve taken to streamline welfare distribution and weed out those overusing the system provide a good model to take statewide.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and city Department of Health and Human Services Director Douglas Gardner are reiterating calls for the state to form a working group in search of greater efficiencies in the welfare system, arguing that Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposals will create more problems than they’ll solve.

The Portland leaders say lessons learned in Maine’s largest city during the recession may be the starting point for a blueprint to help the entire state save money.

“I think there’s a longstanding perception that Portland has a generous assistance program and I would dispute that,” Gardner said. “Three or four years ago, we had to take a look at our program because of the numbers of people seeking aid. We had to find efficiencies.”

Brennan will join mayors from Maine’s largest municipalities, which recently formed a coalition, in Augusta on Thursday to speak out against LePage’s supplemental budget proposal. LePage’s proposal would impose cost-saving measures in general assistance that would greatly affect population centers, where most general assistance aid is administered.

Among the governor’s proposals are a 90-day cap on housing subsidies, reducing the 90 percent reimbursements now granted to the top distributors of general assistance aid, and blocking recipients of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds from also receiving general assistance money.

Gardner said the reimbursement cuts alone would leave Portland with a $2.25 million local budget hole, and limiting housing aid to three months would make it difficult for city officials to find landlords willing to work with them.

Brennan, a trained social worker and former state lawmaker, had more forceful words.

“Anyone from the administration or at the Department [of Health and Human Services for the state] who would propose a 90-day limit to housing assistance is demonstrating a total lack of understanding of general assistance programs and how they work,” the mayor said Monday. “What we’re running into here is not a money problem — $12 million is a relatively small program at the state level, but it has a huge impact across the state. The governor just doesn’t want to fund the program for ideological reasons.”

The LePage administration has defended its budget plans, which include proposed tax cuts for retirement and out-of-state military incomes, as steps toward controlling a growing dependence on public funds and putting money back in control of private citizens.

Brennan and Gardner said the growing use of public aid is a direct result of the economic downturn.

“Just because we’ve had an increase in spending, it doesn’t mean there’s some flaw in the way the program has been run,” Brennan said.

Gardner said there may be ways to control state general assistance spending without implementing the long-term changes LePage has proposed. He said Portland officials were among many calling for the establishment of a working group during the last legislative session to help find ways to more efficiently distribute welfare aid statewide. They, alongside other municipal leaders on Thursday, will be asking again this year.

“Our message is that we think the program should remain intact, and we’re willing to take part in a working group to find best practices,” Brennan said.

In Portland, general assistance applications skyrocketed from fewer than 12,000 in 2005-06 to nearly 24,000 in 2010-11. The cost to the city shot up accordingly, from around $3 million to $6.8 million over that same time. Bangor City Council Chairman and Mayor Cary Weston said during an interview about the working group earlier this month that Bangor has nearly 900 people on its rolls. Weston said the recipients are not necessarily from the Bangor area, but come to the service center for the methadone clinics, subsidized housing, nonprofit services and community health and counseling.

Gardner said he expects Portland’s general assistance expenditures to begin to level out now that they’ve implemented systemic changes to better track applicants’ financial situations. He said the city now checks with all major banks for financial records of applicants, instead of just the bank listed on applications, for instance, to make sure there are no other accounts where money is being kept.

He also said the city updates its search for other applicable state and federal programs for individuals on public assistance each month, regularly making sure applicants are taking advantage of all other options before turning to the city’s general assistance rolls.

Gardner said the city set out to make the systemic changes in the face of increased demands and limited funds. He said city officials intended for the changes to help those in need navigate complicated networks of welfare programs, but in the process caught some people trying to get more public funds than their qualifications allowed.

“We do discover once in awhile that all of an individual’s resources have not been disclosed,” Gardner said. “Whether that’s intentional or accidental, we can’t always say for sure, but it does happen.”

That type of streamlining, he said, is the sort of day-to-day reform that can be implemented statewide and perhaps save the Maine government some money.

“We always verified resources, but it wasn’t as systemic and comprehensive as it is now,” Gardner said Monday. “We know what we’ve been able to put in place in terms of verifying eligibility and resources — I do believe we’ve gained efficiencies and saved money — but there may be an even better way to do it. We just need to have that conversation.”

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