At a time when use of General Assistance funds is coming under scrutiny by the governor and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, city officials are developing policies to make it easier to distribute money to community members in need of financial assistance.

Because GA expenditures exceeded $18 million statewide in 2014 and the state reimbursed nearly $13 million of that to municipalities, DHHS is looking for ways to cut back.

The state currently reimburses municipalities for 50 percent of GA expenditures up to a threshold of 0.03 percent of the total property valuation in the municipality. For those who exceed that threshold, the state reimburses at a 90-percent rate. Only three cities are reimbursed at 90 percent: Portland, Bangor and Lewiston.

Belfast, with a population of 6,800, spent $23,182 on General Assistance in 2014. This is 0.003 percent of its 2014 property valuation of $686 million, well below the current threshold for receiving 90-percent reimbursement.

"This current methodology creates a perverse incentive to 'spend more to get more' by rewarding more GA expenditures with a higher level of state match," a DHHS press release stated. The governor's proposed budget would reverse that formula to provide 90-percent reimbursement to most municipalities and 10-percent reimbursement to those that exceed 40 percent of their most recent six-year average. Many people spoke against the governor's proposal at a hearing March 3 in Augusta.

Amid the statewide debate, Belfast took up the issue of how it administers GA at a March 3 City Council meeting. City Manager Joe Slocum presented a proposed statement of policy on the administration of General Assistance and financial assistance requests.

He said he recently attended a DHHS training for GA administrators and came away from it with the impression that the agency does not want municipalities to "give one dime unless [they] absolutely have to."

There are extensive restrictions to eligibility for General Assistance. Slocum said if someone receives $700 per month in disability, they are ineligible even if their rent alone is $700. Also, according to a printout of the training slideshow he provided councilors, funds that were "misspent" — or spent on anything other than basic necessities — in the 30 days prior to the application are counted as income in the formula to determine eligibility.

Despite these hurdles, Belfast is developing policies to make the city's GA funds more accessible to residents who need them.

"There is a lot that is black and white," Slocum said. "But there is also a lot that is up to the GA administrator's discretion."

Based on council discussions over the years, Slocum's policies aim to "have GA reach as far as it can, and give the benefit of the doubt to the applicant whenever we can."

These policies include not counting such items as reasonably priced birthday presents for a child as misspent funds; calculating transportation associated with food shopping as an essential expense; not assuming family members can or will help; requiring that for denials based on misspent funds, the decision must be put in writing; and "treating every applicant with dignity, respect and a genuine interest in helping out."

While DHHS places the burden on the applicant to provide all documentation to prove  need, Belfast's proposed policies state the GA administrator should help applicants get the documentation they need and help find transportation if the applicant must travel to obtain documents or to seek outside assistance.

To fulfill the DHHS work requirement, an applicant may not quit a job without just cause. Belfast's proposed policy is to "err on the side of the applicant" if it is plausible that the individual left a job with just cause. A cell phone is not considered a basic necessity by DHHS unless the applicant has a doctor's note. Belfast policy would consider a phone a basic necessity and would not count a phone bill as misspent funds. Instead the city may help the applicant find a less expensive cell phone, if necessary.

Overall, the policies call for the city to look at the whole person and the whole situation when determining eligibility and to also look for resources beyond GA that can help applicants who are not eligible.

"It is the policy of the city to exercise discretion in favor of the applicant at all times if there is any reason to suspect that the information provided by the applicant — including verbal explanations — is a reasonable account of their situation, actions, or needs," the proposed policy states.

Councilors were overwhelmingly supportive of the policies.

Councilor Mike Hurley said there is great need for the program, citing a statistic that 23 percent of Belfast residents live below the poverty line. For many, he said, asking for help is the last thing they want to do.

"I want people having a tough time to be greeted like this is a life boat," he said.

Councilor Neal Harkness said as the county seat Belfast has a greater responsibility to those who need help.

"We have a higher percentage of impoverished people here because they need to be near services," he said. "Many smaller towns don't have services for the handicapped, the mentally ill, the impoverished, those with substance abuse needs. Cities take on the burden for surrounding areas, like Bangor, Portland and Lewiston. To a smaller extent we do that here."

Harkness and Councilor Eric Sanders both made the point that the city could offer assistance outside the GA program.

"We should budget money for people that may not qualify for GA but we find have genuine need," Sanders said. "There's got to be more need out there than what we're spending on GA."

Slocum said the city has a poverty fund to provide assistance to people who may not qualify for GA. The proposed policies would apply to both programs for consistency.

The council officially appointed Slocum and Office Assistant Nora McGrath as GA administrators for the city at its meeting March 3, though they have been serving that role unofficially.

The council will further discuss and possibly approve the Belfast statement of policy on the administration of GA and financial assistance requests at its March 17 meeting.