City fighting massive audit of General Assistance program

Case highlights conflict between city's, state's approach to welfare
By Ethan Andrews | Nov 11, 2016
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Pam Chase, Belfast's General Assistance program administrator in her office at City Hall.

Belfast — City officials are pushing back after Maine Department of Health and Human Services unexpectedly cut off General Assistance reimbursements in September and demanded that the city resubmit paperwork dating back more than a year.

City and state officials are negotiating, and the city has prepared to take legal action against the state if negotiations fail. Either way, the conflict highlights a stark difference in how the city and state look at welfare.

In April a DHHS auditor reviewed 11 of Belfast's General Assistance cases and found missing information along with red flags that the city had given benefits to applicants who shouldn't have qualified, or paid expenses that shouldn't have been covered by the program.

Among a dozen violations, the auditor found the city had given assistance to applicants who should have been disqualified for quitting a job, given vouchers for phone cards, counted children as household members when they were only present on weekends, approved applicants who didn't meet conditions of eligibility, given a voucher for temporary housing to a client who was evicted from permanent housing for behavioral issues, and issued extra food when a household had family visiting.

General Assistance is a short-term aid program that exists in every municipality in the state. Benefits can be used for housing, heat, electricity, food and other necessary expenses. Applicants have to prove need within state guidelines and to the satisfaction of the General Assistance administrator. The state currently reimburses 70 percent to municipalities.

Speaking Nov. 4, City Manager Joe Slocum said the audit itself wasn't surprising and GA administrator Pam Chase responded, as the city had after other audits, with a plan to fix the mistakes. In past years, he said, that would have been the end of it. But in June, the auditor returned to look at another 14 files and found many of the same problems, along with some new ones.

Slocum reviewed the files himself this time and sent a point-by-point response to DHHS, acknowledging errors by the city, and questioning some of the auditor's opinions. He submitted a new and more detailed plan and a checklist to help the GA administrator avoid repeating mistakes. Again, he considered it done.

"I've never seen anything other than — we come down to look at you; you're either fine or you're not fine," he said.

A month later, DHHS sent a single-page ultimatum. Belfast's reimbursement was being withheld, and the city had 30 days to resubmit all GA documentation dating back to August 2015.

To do this, Slocum said, would mean culling more than 500 cases from folders that had been organized by name, not date. Each case would take more than two hours to review, he said. In the context of regular city business, the job was all but impossible.

Slocum said reimbursements often take months to process. He didn't know how much money was at stake, but said the city has outstanding claims going back to January.

The Republican Journal contacted DHHS multiple times seeking comment and additional information. On Nov. 7, DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards emailed a one-sentence reply. "Belfast General Assistance is under corrective action and the Department is working with them on addressing the situation," she wrote.

Edwards did not respond to a request for information regarding which other municipalities, if any, are under corrective action from DHHS.

On Oct. 19, city attorney Bill Kelly filed an appeal in an administrative law court seeking more time to pull together the documents. The city hired Vickie Edgerly, a 25-year Health and Welfare director for the city of Biddeford — she was recommended by the state — to review a month's worth of GA files in the hope of resolving the problem "in a fair and easier way," Slocum said.

On Nov. 4, Slocum said the state hadn't budged, but both sides were talking and conversations had been "professional."

"Nobody's posturing," he said. "Nobody is."

A great divergence

Belfast's General Assistance spending in the last two years changed enough to catch the eye of the sleepiest auditor. In fiscal year 2014-15, the city spent $23,000 on General Assistance. The next year the tab jumped to $320,000. Slocum believes it was this "great divergence of numbers" more than any specific violations noted by the auditor that prompted DHHS to consider a larger audit of how the city administered General Assistance.

The "great divergence" was the result of administrative mistakes and external forces like changes in the local economy, but it also reflected a philosophical awakening at City Hall.

Slocum said the city had been turning away people who arrived from other communities with no permanent home here, not realizing the city was legally obligated to help them. Others who might have been eligible for help were sent away for some missing piece of paperwork and never returned.

Belfast had slowly tightened its GA requirements over several years in a way that Slocum said was unintentional. By 2015, he said, churches were calling City Hall to complain and city councilors were seeking out copies of the General Assistance laws to review on their own time.

In March 2015, the council adopted a policy that favored applicants when there was doubt and the law allowed.

City Councilor Mike Hurley said at the time, "I want people having a tough time to be greeted like this is a life boat."

The city's GA administrator at the time, Debra McGowan, whom Hurley later described as having looked for ways to disqualify applicants, resigned a month after the policy took effect. The resignation appeared to be a deal. Slocum recommended she be fired, and notes from a personnel meeting show the council was considering some sort of disciplinary action.

While the city's GA policy clearly puts the law first, the council's softer view of the city GA administrator's role went the opposite direction of the state in recent years. Under the LePage Administration and Commissioner Mary Mayhew, DHHS has pushed hard to get people off welfare, often by being less lenient with the rules.

Slocum acknowledged the difference but said the city's policy was not political.

"We didn't write that because we didn't like what was happening in Augusta," he said. "We didn't like what was happening here in our own city."

The conflict of styles, however, shows in the audits. Slocum said an applicant who was required to look for a job every week but did so only two weeks out of four was given half his monthly benefit by the city's GA administrator.

"The state came back and said, 'Not a dime,'" he said. A person either met the requirements 100 percent or not at all.

In a written narrative of the city's dispute with DHHS, Slocum poked holes in the state's black-and-white formulas.

"If you have a child living with you all the time, the system accepts and recognizes your need to feed that child," he wrote. "However, if you only have visitation and care of the child on weekends, the system does not recognize that you need to feed that child on those days."

Similarly, he said, the state recognizes day-to-day costs of driving a car, but doesn't recognize car payments or insurance.

The audit also hinted at attempts by the state to assert its authority in areas that Slocum said used to be left to the city. Where it was once enough for the city's GA administrator to see an applicant's receipts, he said, the state now wants copies made, presumably to be reviewed later. The added requirements place an unnecessary burden on the city and applicants, he said.

"How much do we have to track people down?" he said. "They're not criminal suspects. They're people looking for help."

The increase in GA spending reflects some real problems in Belfast, too. Slocum said a shortage of apartments in the city combined with a requirement to find lodging locally has meant more housing assistance is being used to pay for motels and other short-term lodging. Even with negotiated rates of $800 or $900 a month, the cost remains well above the $671 maximum for a heated one-bedroom apartment.

"The reality is there are not a lot of $700-a-month apartments in the city of Belfast," he said. "And that's not a secret to anybody."

There are economic factors, too. Little River Apparel, the manufacturing arm of Group Home Foundation that once employed more than 200 people, most with physical or intellectual disabilities, closed last year. The closure laid off a particularly vulnerable group of workers who needed assistance.

Belfast budgeted $190,000 in the current year for General Assistance. Whether that's enough or too much remains to be seen. Slocum said the city is not looking at the big numbers the way administrators in Augusta might be.

"We don't do this globally," he said. "We don't do it generally. We do it one application at a time. And either we get it right or we get it wrong."

If the city can stave off the state's 12-month super audit, Slocum said he's hoping to come out of the dispute with DHHS with a clear idea of how to avoid the same problem in the future. As of Nov. 4, he was still unsure why the state had come after the city.

"I've talked to experienced GA people and said, 'Have you ever seen anything like this?'" he said. "They said, 'No.'"

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