BELFAST, Maine — The Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Belfast have resolved a lengthy dispute over the city’s welfare program — a resolution that will cost the town’s taxpayers about $100,000.
DHHS and Belfast have been at odds over a dramatic increase in spending on the General Assistance program in town and how officials have administered the program. That dispute sparked a state audit and “corrective action” against Belfast.
Under the terms of the agreement, the state will give Belfast about $124,000 of the $225,000 the city sought in General Assistance reimbursements between August 2015 and June 2016. That leaves the city with about $100,000 in uncovered expenses, which will have to come from municipal coffers, according to Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum.
“We made mistakes in the administration of this program that were inconsistent with state law,” Slocum wrote last week in an update to city councilors. “The state does not have to be this harsh, but they are, and they negotiated based on historical trends rather than analysis of any individual month.”
General Assistance is a program that helps eligible people who do not have enough money for basic needs, such as food, heating fuel and housing. Maine municipalities administer the program for their residents, and the state reimburses the municipalities for a percentage of those costs while overseeing that rules and regulations are followed.
The dispute arose in early 2016 when a DHHS auditor visited and reviewed some program files. The visit came on the heels of a significant increase — from $35,000 to $325,000 — in the city’s General Assistance spending from 2015 to 2016. In March 2016, the agency reported its findings, listing problems that ranged from incomplete paperwork to awarding General Assistance to people who shouldn’t have qualified or covering expenses that shouldn’t have been covered. In other instances, the city provided phone card vouchers and counted children among the residents of a household even if they only visited on weekends.
DHHS demanded that Belfast officials review every General Assistance request going back to August 2015 — more than 550 applications in all — a task Slocum said was “frankly impossible” with limited staff and time.
Slocum attributes the sudden jump in General Assistance spending to several factors. He said the city “was not helping people in 2015 that we should have been helping,” and so it adopted policies that were more favorable to people applying for benefits. The spending in 2015 was unusually stingy, according to Slocum. In 2010, for example, the city spent about $100,000 on General Assistance benefits.
The city also saw a threefold increase in the number of applicants in 2016. Layoffs at area businesses, a shortage of affordable apartments with rents that met General Assistance maximum, an increase in the number of people looking for winter housing and people moving to Belfast in search of work, services or assistance all contributed to that load, Slocum said.
Late last year, the City of Portland and DHHS reached a settlement in the city’s lawsuit over the agency withholding about $1.6 million in General Assistance reimbursement. When that was resolved, Belfast became the only municipality in the state under “corrective action” for its General Assistance administration.
“[DHHS] is pleased to have resolved the issue of appropriate reimbursement for past GA expenditures,” DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards said in an email Monday. “We are also encouraged by Belfast’s renewed commitment to the integrity of its eligibility determination process and its record keeping.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.