PORTLAND, Maine — Portland city officials have imposed a hiring freeze — as well as a spending freeze on certain accounts — as uncertainty whether the state will reimburse the city for General Assistance payments to undocumented immigrants continues to grow.
Overtime and travel are among the accounts that have been frozen.
Mayor Michael Brennan said city officials are preparing as much as they can for the unknown.
“There’s a significant amount of uncertainty,” Brennan said.
The city’s General Assistance fund costs about $9 million per year, according to Brennan.
About $2.5 million or $3 million of that comes from the city and the rest is typically reimbursed by the state. Brennan said the city submitted its reimbursement request to the state in September and has not heard back yet.
“So that’s why we’re concerned, that in two months we haven’t heard back from the state in terms of what they will reimburse and what they won’t reimburse,” Brennan said.
Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian is suggesting a freeze, anticipating Portland will have to spend an extra $3.24 million. The freeze includes hiring, travel, overtime, purchases more than $1,000, fleet, and any expenditures on Canco Road.
“I think what the city manager has done is very proactive, at this point and looking into the future of the budget, and by taking these steps at this point we think that it will mitigate any potential problems as we go through the budget through next year,” Brennan said.
Gov. Paul LePage earlier this year said the state would withhold General Assistance reimbursements to cities or towns that provide General Assistance to undocumented immigrants, saying he is complying with federal law.
Brennan said Portland is complying with state law, by not denying General Assistance to anyone who needs it. “We’re kind of caught in a tough situation in complying with state law and following the court case and then also trying to address the issues that the governor has raised,” Brennan said.
Portland and Westbrook have joined with advocacy groups to challenge the LePage administration’s move in court.
A statement from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services reiterated the administration’s position that denying General Assistance reimbursements to municipalities that provide aid through the program to undocumented immigrants complies with federal law.
“The department will continue to act to ensure General Assistance reimbursements are distributed in a consistent manner and in accordance with federal law,” the release states. “As General Assistance reimbursements are currently the subject of municipality-initiated litigation, we are unable to discuss specific details at this time.”
Brennan said the freeze should not impact Portland residents.