LePage, mayors trade blows over general assistance funding

Posted April 20, 2012, at 6:02 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s office is firing back at a group of mayors who expressed disappointment with the governor’s line-item veto to general assistance welfare funding.

The coalition of mayors from Maine’s largest cities released a statement on Wednesday saying that if the vetoes hold up, the municipalities would have to “raise taxes to cover the state’s obligation.”

The mayors came together in March to raise concerns about the governor’s proposed changes to general assistance, which, they argued in their release, “would have shifted millions of dollars in costs from the state to local property taxpayers.”

The group includes Mayors Michael Brennan of Portland, Karen Heck of Waterville, Colleen Hilton of Westbrook, Mark Johnston of Saco, Robert Macdonald of Lewiston, William Stokes of Augusta, Cary Weston of Bangor, Alan Casavant of Biddeford, Patti Smith of South Portland and Jonathan LaBonte of Auburn.

LePage countered on Thursday, releasing a statement that said the state has offered municipalities flexibility in the design of their general assistance programs, and that they could redesign their programs to reduce the burden on local government and taxpayers.

“The mayors’ assertion that the proposed welfare changes will shift millions of dollars in costs from the state to local property taxpayers is a local choice,” LePage said in his statement.

“While general assistance is a state and local partnership, the current path we are on is unaffordable at both levels of government,” LePage wrote, adding that state spending on the program was projected to hit $14.3 million by 2013 — more than double what it cost in 2008.

“I am looking at a way to sustain our welfare programs for Maine’s most needy,” LePage said.

Brennan argued that general assistance is governed by state statute and that municipalities are bound by those statutes, so general assistance isn’t a matter of local control.

“When the governor says these are local decisions, I find that puzzling,” Brennan said in a telephone interview Friday. He said the growth in general assistance needs in Portland and across the state has been driven by the economic struggles of the past five years.

“We do everything we can in Portland to run an effective, well managed and efficient program within state guidelines,” Brennan said.

Macdonald said Friday that he was torn over the general assistance issue.

“As mayor of Lewiston, it’s my duty to do everything I can to keep the taxes down, and this welfare mess is probably really going to hurt us,” Macdonald said.

But as a citizen, he said he is 100 percent behind LePage and recognizes a need for reform of a welfare system that’s “running amok in the state.”

Macdonald and Brennan also questioned a block grant proposal that would allow municipalities to limit or opt out of the general assistance program. They argued that if one community opted out, residents would be driven to surrounding municipalities for aid, compounding the problems of the communities that still have general assistance.

LePage said that during his time as Waterville’s mayor, he was able to lower general assistance costs through efficient management practices and with the understanding that the program was meant to provide immediate, short-term assistance.

Heck, Waterville’s mayor, said conversations with municipal employees revealed that LePage cut costs by reducing general assistance staff hours. She argued that tactic also would have reduced residents’ access to the program.

She said the cuts to general assistance were part of a longstanding “war on poor people.”

Brennan said the mayors support LD 1903, a “bipartisan compromise” that would reduce maximum benefit levels by 10 percent, reduce reimbursement for municipalities with high general assistance burdens from 90 percent to 85 percent, create a pilot project to help general assistance recipients applying for Social Security and disability insurance and implement a study process to develop long-term improvements to the program.

Weston, chairman of the Bangor City Council, did not return a call requesting comment on Friday. The council discussed how to handle the general assistance cuts during a budget workshop Thursday night.

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