Portland officials are still awaiting word from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services about a disputed state audit of the city’s General Assistance program.

The City Council was first notified in May 2013 that an audit was going to be conducted, according to an April 4 email from the city’s former director of health and human services. “This particular audit was requested by the DHHS Commissioner’s Office and is separate from the annual audit required by the GA statute,” wrote Douglas Gardiner.

Based on the initial audit findings, the state informed the city April 1 that its program was not in compliance with state statutes and policy.

The city responded roughly two weeks later, arguing that the program has been operated under the same policies for the past two decades with the blessing of DHHS and had never before been found out of compliance.

Since then, the city has been awaiting a final determination.

“We have not heard back from the state since we provided a written response to their initial audit findings on April 18,” said Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director. “We are hopeful that they will agree with our response and find us in compliance.”

The state has declined requests to discuss the audit. DHHS spokesman David Sorensen would only say that the audit, which examined records for June 2013, “is ongoing.”

At issue is the city’s long-standing practice of assuming that anyone who stays at its homeless shelter is presumed to be eligible for General Assistance, an assistance program of last resort for rent, food and utilities. GA costs are shared by municipalities and the state.

According to the preliminary findings of the audit, the state said the city should be requiring people to fill out long forms before receiving assistance, rather than a shorter form used by the city. Also, eligibility should be determined at least on a monthly basis, and the city is “inappropriately” billing the state for the shelter’s operation costs, the findings said.

Grondin said the city has not changed its practices as a result of the audit.

Mayor Michael Brennan suggested that the audit was motivated by election-year politics.

LePage won re-election in November by running on a platform of reforming welfare so it will be available to “those who truly need it,” such as the disabled and elderly.

“I think the whole audit was unnecessary,” Brennan said. “I think it just reflected the fact that the department of human services was trying to focus a special light on Portland.”

In addition to the special audit, Portland is also a party in a lawsuit challenging the LePage administration’s directive to stop providing General Assistance to undocumented immigrants, a policy that Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills has deemed unconstitutional.

The city, along with the Maine Municipal Association, is looking for the state courts to provide municipalities with clarity, since LePage has threatened to withhold all GA reimbursements to municipalities that do not comply. That could cost Portland between $3 million and $9 million, city officials have said.

Portland has frozen nonessential hiring and overtime, as well as postponed several community projects, to absorb those costs should the state prevail in court.

Brennan said the city’s policy of “presumed eligibility” for people who stay at the homeless shelter has been approved by the DHHS for years.

“It’s unfortunate we’ve had to engage in all of this paperwork in response and back-and-forth to address something we’ve been doing for years and that has worked well for years,” he said.

Brennan said changing the program to address the state’s concerns would put an additional “administrative burden” on staff, though he wasn’t sure what that would mean in terms of cost.

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