The city of Belfast is in the spotlight for how it administers General Assistance funds for the second time in recent history.
Just a few years ago, the city wrangled with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and in 2017 had to pay the state about $100,000 to resolve a dispute over reimbursement for benefits given to people in need.
The city came to the attention of the agency in 2016, when state officials noticed that spending on General Assistance had skyrocketed in just a year. Spending in the city went from $23,000 for the 2014-15 fiscal year to $320,000 for the 2015-16 fiscal year.
An auditor from the agency visited Belfast and reviewed program files, finding reported problems that ranged from incomplete paperwork to awarding General Assistance to people who should not have qualified or funding expenses that should not have been covered.
Why the dramatic changes in spending? Belfast City Councilor Neal Harkness said that in 2014 and 2015, the city employed a General Assistance administrator who had “basic philosophical differences” with the program’s intent. Spending plummeted, although need did not, he said.
“It was like, well, pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” he said Wednesday. “She was discouraging people from even applying.”
That created another problem because the Greater Bay Area Ministerium, a group of area churches and faith organizations, use the General Assistance applications to determine eligibility for their own charitable programs, Harkness said.
“This woman wasn’t even letting them apply,” he said.
By 2015, churches were calling City Hall to complain about the city’s stinginess. That March, the council adopted a policy that favored applicants, and City Councilor Mike Hurley said that he wanted “people who are having a tough time to be greeted like this is a lifeboat.”
A month after the new policy took effect, the General Assistance administrator resigned, and the city began to spend more to help people who needed it. There was no shortage of need, thanks to the midcoast’s ongoing affordable housing problem, and layoffs and the eventual closure of Little River Apparel in Belfast, which put about 120 people, many of whom had physical or intellectual disabilities, out of work.
For a while, things were particularly grim. Harkness said he would see people sleeping on the porch of the American Legion Hall and that the city rented so many rooms for homeless people in local motels that one in particular had the nickname of “Belfast’s homeless shelter.”
This increased need, combined with paperwork mistakes and the inexperience of the next General Assistance administrator, led to the city’s tangle with Maine DHHS, the state audit and the agency’s taking “corrective action” against the city.
“We had to resubmit hundreds and hundreds of applications. We had to bring in outside help,” Harkness said. “It was a huge mess, all because we tried so hard to help homeless people. And now people are saying that we are telling people to live in the woods.”