Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Gov. Paul LePage met Monday in an effort to ease tensions and improve communication in the midst of what has been called a targeted, coordinated campaign against Maine’s largest city to build public support for the governor’s ambitious budget proposals.

The hourlong meeting in Augusta, which also was attended by Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, touched on several issues, including a disagreement over whether General Assistance funding can be used to operate the city’s homeless shelters.

LePage has proposed a series of welfare reforms that could cost Portland roughly $9 million by changing welfare eligibility for some immigrants and the way reimbursements to municipalities are determined.

No decisions regarding General Assistance were made on Monday, since detailed discussions are occurring among city and state staff members, Brennan said.

“I thought the meeting was very productive,” Brennan said Monday night. “It was very helpful and I accomplished everything I wanted to in the meeting.”

Brennan said he touched on a wide range of issues, including education and workforce development. They also discussed the need to improve communications between the state and its largest city, which has been in the crosshairs of LePage’s welfare reform efforts.

Brennan and some Portland city councilors have accused the administration of attacking the city as a way to gain public support for the governor’s budget, rather than a sincere effort to fix problems.

They point to an op-ed column by Mayhew that was published within days of an explosive state audit revealed that several people staying in the Oxford Street Homeless Shelter had significant financial assets. The state, however, failed to explain those individuals had mental illness and couldn’t responsibly use those funds to get help.

“There’s no agreement other than we will try to talk to each other beforehand and have a better understanding of our different perspectives, recognizing the fact we will probably continue to have disagreements about things,” Brennan said.

Representatives of LePage were not immediately available for comment Monday night, but it appears to be the first time that a city official has had a chance for dialogue with anyone from the administration on the proposal to re-evaluate how Portland spends its General Assistance dollars.

Mayhew said in a written statement released through a spokesman Monday night that she expects the city to tighten up its welfare programs.

“We look forward to seeing concrete steps toward improved accountability in Portland’s GA welfare program when the city submits its Corrective Action Plan by April 24th,” Mayhew said. “Beyond Portland, however, we continue to emphasize that the current system for reimbursing municipal GA spending is broken, and the Legislature must pass Governor LePage’s budget in order to fix it statewide.”

CITY COULD LOSE $820,000

If LePage’s budget is enacted, Portland officials estimate the city will face a cut of at least $820,000 in GA funding for its homeless shelters because the state has reinterpreted the rules of how, and how often, the city determines whether a shelter guest is eligible for General Assistance.

Previously, the city was allowed to bill the state for the total costs of operating its shelters.

At the 143-bed Oxford Street Homeless Shelter, anyone who asks for a place to stay for the night is presumed to be eligible for GA. However, city officials are now being told they must ensure someone is financially eligible to receive GA before billing the state for that person’s stay in the shelter.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services conducted an annual audit in February, the findings of which were the source of the disagreement.

The changes in interpretation upend a 30-year understanding between Portland and state officials, in which Portland’s shelters would be allowed to use GA funds for operating costs because they serve a large population of mentally ill people, who historically were cared for by the state.

But now, state DHHS officials are arguing for a top-to-bottom re-examination of how GA payments are determined in an attempt to rebalance how much money communities of various sizes and compositions receive, pitching the plan as a way to restore fairness.

 


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