Belfast settles for partial payback in General Assistance dispute

By Ethan Andrews | Mar 08, 2017

Belfast — The city has has settled a dispute with the state over how Belfast was handling its General Assistance program, according to City Manager Joe Slocum.

In a letter to The Republican Journal, Slocum said the city will receive $124,647 in reimbursements from the state Department of Health and Human Services for General Assistance aid paid out by the city from August 2015 to July 2016.

That's a little more than half what the city should have received under statutory terms of the program, under which municipalities provide emergency food, fuel and housing assistance and are reimbursed by the state for 70 percent of the cost.

The docked sum is the result of a legal dispute following a 2016 DHHS audit, in which the department found numerous errors in how the city was processing its General Assistance applications.

These included cases in which the city failed to review how an applicant spent their money prior to applying for General Assistance and whether past applicants had complied with requirements imposed since the last application, misinterpretations of how the statute defines an "emergency," and weak narratives that could have explained why city administrators made the decisions they made.

In previous years, Slocum said the city had been able to address mistakes with a "plan of correction." But last year DHHS surprised city officials by cutting off reimbursements and demanding that the city refile nearly a year's worth of General Assistance reimbursement paperwork, which Slocum called "unduly onerous" and legally questionable.

The city's spending on General Assistance had risen from $35,000 to $325,000 in one year, from 2015 to 2016, and Slocum speculated that it was this, not the clerical errors and procedural lapses noted in the audit, that raised red flags in Augusta.

The nine-fold increase was remarkable, but Slocum said it was misleading for several reasons.

In 2015 city administrators had mistakenly turned away nonresidents of Belfast, where statute requires municipalities to accept homeless applicants, regardless of their previous town of residence.

Perhaps partly as a result of taking those applications, the number of applicants tripled in fiscal year 2016. The problem of increased demand was compounded by a shortage of low-rent housing in Belfast that kept General Assistance recipients in limbo at Admiral's Ocean Inn and other comparatively expensive short-term placements.

The city also decided to be more generous in 2016. After spending dropped to $35,000 the year before, the City Council adopted a policy that gave applicants the benefit of the doubt on matters where the city has the legal authority to decide.

This new policy ran counter to the state's campaign against welfare abuse, under which DHHS tightened eligibility requirements for other safety net programs.

The city manager acknowledged that the balance of General Assistance spending not reimbursed by the state would have to be paid from property taxes.

"Yes this means that this will cost your tax dollars about $100,000," he wrote. "I do know that this upsets you. It seriously upsets me. The only thing I can do is to make sure we don't fall into this pit again."

Ultimately, he reiterated the city's goal of helping those in need rather than turning them away.

The letter concluded with excerpts from the General Assistance statute, including a highlighted passage underscoring the duty of municipalities to give General Assistance to a person "each time that person has need and is found to be otherwise eligible to receive General Assistance."

Comments (5)
Posted by: Kenneth W Hall | Mar 08, 2017 17:57

I have already seen pan handlers in the medians and as the weather warms up I suppose they will return.  Not as many as I see in Bangor however they are beginning to appear.


I wish I had an answer for "managed correctly".   I fear that as long as there is government assistance, there will be someone who has an opinion the benefits are not being managed correctly.  Kind of sad really.  Churches used to do this more before the Government stepped in to do it.  At least through the churches there was some fellowship that went along with the aid.

Posted by: Melanie Keene | Mar 08, 2017 16:03

If there were a link to one of the original stories posted regarding this, you would see that much of Belfast's errors were due to things like providing GA assistance for food to people who were having relatives over, or giving GA benefits to people who claimed they had their children and actually didn't have them at least 50% of the time. As far as putting people up and helping the homeless-Belfast now has an "open for business" sign. Soon, you will see the medians crowded with panhandlers, the motels up and down route 1 loaded with homeless, and none of them will have to work for their benefits. There is supposed to be a workfare program in place that expects GA recipients to do a certain amount of community service to earn the GA they are given, but from what I've seen, there aren't a lot of people out on the streets of Belfast or surrounding areas doing community service. I don't live in Belfast, I live in Northport, so my taxes aren't affected by what's going on there now, but it is only a matter of time before other taxes are forced to go up because the programs aren't being managed correctly.

Posted by: Kenneth W Hall | Mar 08, 2017 10:47

I couldn't agree more Mr Richardson, but do you think the people in need help that are capable could work for the City for the assistance?  To help build their self confidence, experience, self worth? So they feel as though the help is deserved?  Have a list of 20 different jobs to choose from.  Then require, from those that are capable, to choose from those 20 chores to work 25 hours a week to receive the benefits?  $1000 a DAY is a lot of help!  Belfast can help them and in turn they can help Belfast.  Assistance used to be for those that were living pay check to pay check that their house burned down and could be put up in a hotel.  As a former volunteer for Hope House in Bangor which feeds "wet" addicts I believe every human deserves help when needed.   Is the City maintaining control is the question.  Certainly increasing 9 fold in one year is concerning.  If the same trend is continued with controls a nine fold increase over last year now will be $2.925 million is my point.  What happens when the small surrounding towns decide to cut off their own GA and force all homeless and GA needs to Belfast.  Will the mill rates in Belfast increase and the surrounding towns stay the same or drop?  The opiate addiction problem is a small portion of the increase and spreading.  Let's be optimistic and have the rate of increase be cut in half for this year and have a 4.5 increase.  Then it is only a $1.462 million dollar line item.  I do not collect or work in the GA office and do not see the reasons for the need or the requirements but have worked at places where GA benefactors have stayed and there is no incentive for them to change.  Some are beginning to expect it. I just think there needs to be checks and balances.



Posted by: Harold Richardson | Mar 08, 2017 07:34

If the city made any mistakes and I'm not sure they did-it was done to help people that needed it and had no other place to turn.  There's a lot of people around here that need help.  Good for Belfast.   

Posted by: Kenneth W Hall | Mar 08, 2017 07:17

Something seems wrong with this.  Belfast adopts an Indigenous Day and then the City line item increases by "nine fold".   Isn't that putting an add up that basically says "Belfast Welcome Homeless"  come and stay at a motel for free in mid-coast Maine.  Belfast tax payers will subsidize any homeless that wish to relocate here.

Don't get me wrong, I STRONGLY believe Belfast should help every homeless person that shows up on City Hall steps.  However!, I firmly believe if our tax dollars continue to increase 9 fold a year that the homeless be required to work for those benefits in some way.  Just like the tax payers of the rest of the town did.

Maybe picking up ALL plastic bags, and not just target the bags from large square foot retailers, through out the City 40 hours a week???

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