A BDN report published last week showing that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services improperly redirected at least $7.8 million in federal welfare funds meant for children and families to pay for services for elderly and disabled adults drew a sharp rebuke from Mary Mayhew, the department’s commissioner.
“The BDN has their facts wrong,” Mayhew said at the start of an exchange with reporters in Biddeford on Thursday.
“What we’ve done is to maximize our available resources through the TANF block grant,” she said. “It is a block grant to the state, which means it affords the state the flexibility. We are in fact supporting more families other than just those who are receiving benefits.”
Mayhew goes on for several minutes. She accuses the BDN of wanting to “go back into time and simply have a program where people are trapped in poverty … languishing on these programs with no incentive to move onto that pathway of independence and self-sufficiency.” She declares that the BDN is offering a “lopsided perspective.” She says she is “confident in how we have pursued the use of these dollars.”
She says it all without offering any evidence to contradict the documentation on which the BDN based its reporting — documentation showing that, in 2015, the state transferred $7.8 million from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, to another block grant, the Social Services Block Grant, and spent the money on services for elderly and disabled adults.
More than 70 percent of those adults, according to the documentation prepared by Maine DHHS and submitted to the federal Administration for Children and Families, were over the age of 60.
States are allowed by federal law to transfer that money from TANF to the Social Services Block Grant. The law, however, states that the money must be spent on programs and services for low-income children or their families.
Mayhew also offers no evidence to contradict the documentation showing that her department was on track to violate the same federal law this year until the BDN began asking questions and DHHS revised the document to show it was spending money in accordance with the law. Mayhew offers no evidence to contradict the BDN’s finding that the revised spending plan for the Social Services Block Grant doesn’t fully account for the state’s actual spending from that block grant.
The commissioner, in her exchange with reporters, does say that her department made the decision to allocate funds in the way that it did following “significant analysis,” including from an outside consultant.
“We wanted to make sure as they looked both across the country at how states are maximizing these federal block grants that they were examining that, examining the federal requirements around those block grants,” Mayhew said. “So I am very confident in the recommendations that they’ve made to us.”
What did the consultant actually recommend?
In January 2015, Public Consulting Group prepared a 61-page report offering Maine DHHS advice on maximizing its resources under three federal block grants — including TANF and the Social Services Block Grant — and organizing its spending. The report suggested some of the fund shuffling mentioned by Mayhew, and the consultants drew attention to the “unpredictable” nature of the transfer of money from TANF to the Social Services Block Grant.
“A lack of transparency about who makes the decision to transfer funds from TANF to SSBG, what criteria are used, and when the decision is made creates a feeling [of] unpredictability for staff at [the Office of Child and Family Services],” the report reads. It adds that the transferred funds must pay for programs that meet “the eligibility criteria for TANF.” Nowhere does it recommend or even mention the maneuver undertaken by Maine DHHS.
Mayhew is claiming that the transfer of funds was lawful, which, if it were true, would suggest something equally damning: that the documentation her department submitted to the federal government can’t be trusted. Either the department broke the law or it provided false documents. It’s not hard to see who’s offering the lopsided perspective.