AUGUSTA, Maine — Roberta Duncan was three weeks shy of her 86th birthday when she was laid to rest last December in an unmarked grave in the “paupers section” of Bangor’s Mount Hope Cemetery.
Bangor Area Homeless Shelter director Dennis Marble was one of only six people present for her burial. The others were: two shelter staff members, a Franciscan Friar, an outreach worker and an employee of a local funeral home.
Duncan had no family locally but was well-known in the Bangor community — at least to people like Marble. In most ways, she was a lot like many of the people who visit the homeless shelter on a given day looking for a meal or a bed.
The woman suffered from physical disabilities — severe osteoporosis and ulcers — and psychological limitations — what Marble called a “compromised memory and mental organizational capacity.”
She needed help and that help “unintentionally cost society some money,” Marble said Thursday.
“When it came to Roberta, the Bangor community didn’t say, ‘There’s no money.’ A local hospital provided her health care and did so before considering rates of reimbursement,” he said. “General assistance provided her with the means for housing and at the end, the casket. The funeral home donated its good work.”
Marble, during testimony Thursday before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said Duncan represents the face of general assistance, a subsidy program that’s in jeopardy of cuts in a supplemental budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.
General assistance is a state program designed to provide emergency assistance to those in need. The program is administered by municipalities and the cost is split between cities and towns and the state, except in areas such as Bangor and Portland where the need is greater. In those areas, the state pays 90 percent of the program once a certain threshold is reached.
LePage wants to reduce that to 50 percent reimbursement for all communities, a move some feel disproportionately affects service centers. He also wants to establish a time limit of 90 days that a recipient can receive assistance for housing and prohibit assistance to anyone who is receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federal subsidy program.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said this week that these programs are not sustainable and the governor wants to see them return to their original intent. Dale Denno, director of the Office of Family Independence at DHHS, said the changes are needed to address an estimated shortfall created by an increased need for general assistance.
But Marble said the 90-day limit would put people like Duncan out on the street, adding that studies show it costs society more to care for someone who is homeless than it does to provide them with subsidized housing.
“This governor’s proposals to cut back general assistance might save money in the short term, but would eventually end up costing taxpayers in other ways,” Marble said. “And ending families’ access to the support provided through TANF will undoubtedly make more families and children homeless.”
Shawn Yardley, Bangor’s director of health and community services, said the proposal likely would add $1 million to his general assistance budget, which would be picked up by local taxpayers because general assistance is an entitlement program for those who qualify.
The social service cuts were the latest elements of the governor’s supplemental budget to come under scrutiny this week.
Thursday was the third day of public hearings on elements of the governor’s $37 million supplemental budget proposal. Several people testified on Tuesday and Wednesday on pieces including tax breaks on pensions that wouldn’t go into effect until 2014.
Many Democrats have said the supplemental budget is a policy document more than it is a budget. To address shortfalls and balance the state budget — outside of the Department of Health and Human Services — the administration needs to cut less than $15 million.
LePage’s proposal is $37 million. It addresses the shortfall but also makes cuts from some areas while increasing spending in other areas unrelated to the shortfall.
Among the more controversial cuts is one that would affect Maine Public Broadcasting Network and general assistance.
In his biennial budget proposal last spring, the governor asked for a reduction in the state’s share to local communities. Many testified in opposition, including many of the same people who testified on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, a coalition of mayors from Maine’s largest cities united to oppose the cuts to general assistance. Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the governor’s proposal to change the way general assistance money is distributed would shift costs to property taxpayers and increase homelessness.
Marble said the LePage administration is making a choice by prioritizing other spending at the expense of general assistance.
“When the governor’s office or bureaucratic leaders say, “There’s no money,” that’s actually a policy statement saying they have decided to distribute funding in other places to different recipients,” Marble said. “In terms of helping people who qualify for programs like general assistance and TANF, there are in fact options. Tax breaks could be reconsidered, taxes on alcohol could be raised, or a review of the tree growth tax law could be conducted.”
Marble said Bangor plans to do what it can to take care of people like Roberta Duncan, even if it means using public dollars.
“The governor and the Maine Legislature need to stand up and do likewise,” Marble said. “We are all in this together. We benefit when we support one another and we all pay when people go without basic life necessities and become homeless.”
Public testimony on the supplemental budget continued well into the evening on Thursday.
The Appropriations Committee is expected to continue working on the supplemental budget proposal into next week and could make a number of changes before a final document is presented to the Legislature.