Portland accounts for roughly 5 percent of Maine’s population, yet its General Assistance welfare program in 2014 spent 63 percent of state GA dollars. That’s up from 47 percent in 2009. I begin this column with that statistic because the numbers speak for themselves, and what they’re saying is that reform is needed.

General Assistance is a welfare program funded with a combination of state and local dollars, but handed out by municipalities. The state reimburses municipalities for 50 percent of program costs up to a certain threshold, weighted by property values, after which the state then reimburses 90 percent of costs. Only Portland, Lewiston and Bangor have routinely exceeded that threshold.

But to consider the spending patterns of Portland, Lewiston and Bangor to be similar would be a big mistake. In the words of “Sesame Street,” one of these things is not like the other.

Portland has about the same number of people living in poverty as a combined Lewiston-Auburn, yet while Portland spent more than $10 million on GA in 2014, L-A spent just $890,000 — less than 9 percent what Portland spent.

Other Maine cities have reduced their GA spending since the height of the recession, as Maine’s unemployment rate dropped from a high of 8.4 percent in 2010 to a post-recession low of 5.5 percent, where it stands today.

Bangor spent $3.09 million on GA in fiscal year 2011, but tapered it off to $2.17 million in 2014. Lewiston spent $943,000 in 2010, but dialed it back to $749,000 in 2014.

Portland? Portland spent $6.66 million in 2011, but throttled it up to a staggering $10.02 million in 2014. This level of spending is pummeling both Portland property taxpayers and state taxpayers alike.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has chastised the LePage administration for turning over this rock, saying that Portland’s GA spending is driven by eligibility. The Department of Health and Human Services has completed our annual review of Portland’s GA program and is in the process of sharing the results with city officials. Suffice it to say, we have serious concerns about Portland’s adherence to the program’s requirements regarding eligibility determinations.

Portland officials also attribute their GA spending in part to the higher rental costs in their city. It’s true, rent in Portland is a little higher than it is in Lewiston or Bangor, but not 11 times higher.

This newspaper has reported that GA reform would shift costs to the city and that Portland is somehow mandated to provide the benefits it is currently providing. Neither is true.

Portland has many options at its disposal to rein in GA spending. Lewiston, for example, recently took the time to audit its GA rolls for fraudulent applications and to enforce job search requirements. The city found 84 recipients were in violation and removed them from the program.

Portland also could reduce benefit amounts, limit eligibility periods and place heavier scrutiny on its emergency applications. There is no reason for Portland’s municipal leaders to throw up their hands and say that GA spending cannot be managed.

Governor Paul LePage’s budget proposes to flip the GA reimbursement rate to provide all towns the opportunity to receive a 90 percent reimbursement up front and a smaller, 10 percent reimbursement after that. This would eliminate the perverse incentive that seems to drive Brennan to turn Portland into a welfare outlier, while at the same time posing no change — or even a net benefit — to the vast majority of Maine towns.

It is a reform intended to achieve fairness in GA spending for all municipalities, incentivize sound financial management and promote stability in the state’s GA budget.

Under LePage’s proposal, the $5.4 million in annual savings would be statutorily directed to fund vital services for severely disabled Mainers currently on waitlists, which in turn would leverage some $10.5 million in federal funds not currently seen by the state.

If Portland’s leaders are truly compassionate, they will get behind this plan.

And contrary to this newspaper’s recent alarmist headlines, the governor’s proposal actually would be measured relatively. Portland would still spend six times more on GA than Lewiston-Auburn, just not 11 times more.

The concerns about spending in General Assistance are consistent with LePage’s and the public’s broader concerns about increased dependency on welfare, out-of-control spending and a lack of commitment to addressing dependency and generational poverty. The governor has advanced significant reforms to realign our focus from poverty to prosperity. The same intervention is necessary to reform Maine’s General Assistance program with a clear focus on curbing Portland’s spending habits.

Mary C. Mayhew is commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: