AUGUSTA, Maine — The cities of Portland and Westbrook are asking a Superior Court judge to make the state pay more than $1.2 million worth of reimbursements for General Assistance spending while the cities challenge the state’s decree that such aid not be given to some immigrants.
The two cities, along with the Maine Municipal Association, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services in July, asking the court to determine whether the state had the authority to issue the new rule prohibiting “undocumented immigrants” from receiving General Assistance.
But while the rule is in legal limbo pending the lawsuit, the state has withheld its share of funding for the program, leaving the two cities scrambling to fill the funding gap and uncertain if state funds will ever be forthcoming.
Westbrook has awaited between $50,000 and $70,000 in reimbursements since June, according to city administrator Jerre Bryant, while the state has withheld more than $1.2 million from Portland, according to city documents.
“We’ve gone three months with no reimbursements,” Portland spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said. “So we’re amending the [lawsuit] to say, ‘Please make them keep reimbursing us while the first complaint is settled.’”
Portland and Westbrook filed an amended complaint in Cumberland County Superior Court on Dec. 12, and are asking the court to make a decision on the withheld funding as soon as possible.
A DHHS spokesman did not respond directly to questions about Portland’s and Westbrook’s reimbursements, but said the state is “working with towns and cities to make sure their reimbursement requests are appropriate and allowable. This will include reviews of some municipalities, which is something the state has always done routinely to ensure general compliance in the program.”
Gov. Paul LePage and Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew this summer announced that the state would no longer pay its share of General Assistance costs associated with providing aid to undocumented immigrants.
General Assistance funds have been distributed on the basis of need, with no regard for immigration status, for years. In June, DHHS issued new guidelines to towns and cities, telling them to no longer provide aid to “unlawfully present aliens,” a category crafted to include not only immigrants who may have crossed the border illegally, but applicants for asylum status who are present with expired visas.
Those immigrants are legally present in the United States while they await disposition of their asylum applications, a process which can take years.
Several cities — most notably Portland, which has a large number of applicants who would be shut out by the new rule — balked at the governor’s decree.
They criticized LePage for creating a new policy on a whim, without going through the normal rulemaking process. Attorney General Janet Mills said the rule change was unconstitutional, and also blasted the governor for not following the rulemaking process, which normally would involve her office’s input.
LePage fired back, saying that the state would not only deny reimbursement for General Assistance funds given to the immigrants in question, but would deny all reimbursement to cities and towns that did not follow his new rule. He said the new policy was required by federal law, a position not shared by Mills.
And it’s not just Portland and Westbrook. Other cities, too, have seen reimbursements for General Assistance lapse since the new policy was announced this summer.
In Lewiston, Social Services Director Sue Charron said the city hasn’t been reimbursed since May. Normally, the state cuts a monthly check for its share of General Assistance, she said, but the city is awaiting more than $175,000 from DHHS.
Like Portland and Westbrook, Lewiston said the state has not given any reason for the delay. In fact, all three cities say the state hasn’t contacted them about General Assistance reimbursements at all.
In Bangor, City Manager Cathy Conlow said the city hasn’t been reimbursed since August, though she couldn’t say how much the city was owed because the General Assistance administrator was not available. But Conlow said it’s not unusual for the state to “drag its feet” in making payments, so she was unsure whether anything was out of the ordinary.
Westbrook, Portland and Lewiston are all continuing to provide assistance to General Assistance applicants regardless of immigration status. Bangor is providing assistance to asylum seekers through another program, which is funded by donations.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.