Portland councilors grapple with new assistance funding questions

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PORTLAND — As City Councilors prepare to vote on establishing a fund to help some immigrants left ineligible for General Assistance, they are also aware of its limits.

“The one thing we know is there is an insufficient amount of money to run a really good program,” Councilor Jon Hinck said in a two-hour council workshop Monday night.

A vote on establishing the Portland Community Support Fund is scheduled for a 5:30 p.m. meeting in City Hall on Monday, Aug. 3, the first of two meetings that night.

The $2.64 million to assist those deemed ineligible for General Assistance because of their immigration status was funded in this year’s budget, which passed by a 5-4 vote on June 24.

The amount will not be enough to cover rent, food, medicines and personal items for the estimated 882 individuals in 543 households, according to a memo to councilors from Assistant City Manager Anita LaChance.

Housing vouchers alone will create a $470,000 deficit if the numbers remain constant through June 30, 2016, LaChance said. The allocated fund amount is about $1.6 million less than what is needed to provide vouchers for the full array of General Assistance.

Geared to accept those who were on the city General Assistance rolls last month, but who have been deemed ineligible by a policy change at the state Department of Health and Human Services, the Community Support Fund will provide two months of full assistance. After that it is recommended by city staff that only housing will be covered.

LaChance noted the numbers assisted may decline as asylum seekers get federal immigration permission to work, which can take at least 180 days after an asylum application is filed.

But “to count on that, I think, is really risky,” she said.

Councilors are also looking to Augusta to see what will become of LD 369, a bill offering asylum seekers and other immigrants two years worth of General Assistance eligibility.

The bill passed the Legislature, and is now part of the package of bills Gov. Paul LePage said he vetoed, but legislators refused to accept because they said he missed the deadline for returning the vetoed bills.

LePage has asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court for an opinion on the validity of the vetoes and whether the Legislature had officially adjourned. The court will hear testimony Friday; City Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said there is no indication when the justices might issue an opinion.

Councilors and Mayor Michael Brennan said the Community Support Fund should be set up to dovetail with current General Assistance requirements in order to recapture any possible reimbursements if LD 369 becomes law.

That picture is clouded by a potential statewide citizen’s initiative to overturn the law if it goes into effect. Should enough signatures be gained and certified, the law would not be enacted until a referendum is held.

The variables involved had to be discarded as city staff moved ahead on how to use the allocated funding, City Manager Jon Jennings said.

“We have to define our program today,” he said.

The Community Support Fund is set up to accept private donations, but has only received $400 from two donors so far, Jennings said. He added he is working with agencies to find ways to supply the medicines and personal care items that would not be covered by existing funding.

“There are people who have approached us with ideas,” he said.

Councilors Jill Duson and Nick Mavodones Jr. said the Community Support Fund is under-publicized at present, and wondered if city staff is diverting possible contributions because of meetings with the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce about establishing a fund to help those ineligible for the Community Support Fund.

Jennings said they have attended meetings with chamber members, but he is not “engaged” in creating the fund. He also balked at the idea of city staff soliciting donations to the city fund.

“City staff are not professional fundraisers,” he said.

Before the Aug. 3 meeting, city staff was instructed to provide more information on how the funding gaps might be closed, how eligibility standards can best match possible state standards in LD 369, an when a community advisory board might be established as part of the Fund.

Brennan, meanwhile, warned that the council vote on Monday will not resolve all the issues.

“I feel next Monday we will be voting on something very solid,” Brennan said. “But we also need to be clear this is a work in progress.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.