Portland councilors urged to preserve General Assistance spending

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PORTLAND — City budgets moved forward on three fronts Monday when city councilors voted on school, municipal and grant spending.

In two meetings lasting almost six hours, councilors unanimously approved the $102.8 million fiscal year 2016 school budget; the $4.28 million Consolidated Housing and Community Development Annual Action Plan, encompassing a variety of federal grants and city funds, was approved, and the elements of the $221 million fiscal year 2016 municipal budget were given preliminary approval.

If passed, the combined school and municipal budgets would add 58 cents to the current city tax rate of $20 per $1,000 of assessed value. Councilors will vote on the municipal budget May 18 after accepting more public comment at a 7 p.m. City Hall meeting.

Block grant blues

The school budget passed with little comment, but other council decisions drew criticism for the lack of spending on social services.

It began in the 5 p.m. meeting on block grant spending, where councilors accepted revisions from acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian that redirected $89,000 in funding from the Portland Community Health Center mental health and substance abuse service at Preble Street.

Block grant recommendations are made by a committee, using a scoring process changed this year to eliminate bonus points for applicants.

Within the applications for federally funded Community Development Block Grants which are disbursed to the city through state government, the Portland Community Health Center placed ahead of Catherine Morrill Day Nursery on Danforth Street.

Hill-Christian then recommended $48,000 to Catherine Morrill and $41,000 for peer coaching services at Amistad, based on State Street, money that had been recommended for Portland Community Health.

Catherine Morrill Executive Director Lori Moses said the funding will help working families who could be pushed to homelessness because of child-care costs, but felt “awkward” regarding how agencies had been forced to compete for the funding.

Portland Community Health Center staff said they were frustrated by the funding elimination, which could leave one social worker for 2,000 clients at Preble Street.

“The challenge is there is already a huge need, we are only going to be able to meet a fraction of it,” CEO Leslie Clark said.

Victoria Foley said the funding cut does not match the reality of the situation.

“Things have changed on the part of the city and not on the part of the homeless,” she said.

Hill-Christian said her recommendations reflected current needs because of a potential loss of state funding for social service programs and a long-time council objective.

“Our priorities were food and shelter first, then (it was) brought to my attention that child care had been a long-standing council priority,” she said.

A move to restore bonus points or funding for applicants providing child care stalled twice by 4-4 votes. Councilor David Marshall abstains from all block grant votes because of his wife’s work. The bonus point question faces another vote on May 18.

Pleas for GA

While forwarding the $221 million municipal budget, councilors heard about 45 minutes of comments, largely directed at possible changes in the city social service spending and the General Assistance voucher program.

A state Department of Health and Human Services decision to cease reimbursements for vouchers given to immigrants unable to document their legal status is being fought in Cumberland County Superior Court by the Maine Municipal Association, with Portland and Westbrook as co-plaintiffs.

However, the pending case and a January DHHS audit revealing policy violations at Oxford Street Shelters has cut a hole into current city finances and led to a total funding reduction for next year, based on the assumption the state reimbursements will be reduced.

City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell said Tuesday the city may have to fill a $5.3 million gap of unreimbursed DHHS funds, based on what was reimbursed in the past and because of withheld funds for the shelter program.

For fiscal year 2016, the city has budgeted $8.6 million, reduced from $13.2 million to reflect what may not be reimbursed by the state next year.

“In this time of uncertainty we have actually increased the city’s contribution to general assistance in the FY16 budget,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell said the city can use reserve surplus to cover the gap this year, but must restore the money in the future or face a downgrade of its credit rating.

But the audience that filled council chambers Monday urged the city to do more.

Noting asylum seekers are not allowed to work for a minimum of 150 days, but can fill a variety of jobs once permits are granted, former School Board member Tae Chung said continuing to provide them with vouchers for housing and basic needs will have its benefits.

“It is really an economic development issue,” Chung said. “(General Assistance) cuts isn’t just about trying to save money, it is about Portland being a leader in how we can move forward.”

Alain Nahimana, immigrant rights and racial justice organizer at the Maine People’s Alliance, urged councilors to take a deeper look at those who could be affected by revising the GA eligibility standards.

“Sometimes we look at the numbers without looking at what asylum seekers have been bringing to the city,” Nahimana said. “I’m really concerned about people being thrown out of their apartments.”

Hill-Christian has added $350,000 in emergency funding to help those affected by general assistance cuts, and councilors balked at the idea they were turning their back on the city’s needy.

“Portland cannot cover, simply by fiat 80 percent of the cost of GA and shelter services, and we can’t simply back into picking up the state’s share of these programs,” Councilor Jill Duson said. “If we are going to create a city-funded program, we need to do it up front, with input from all of our partners.”

The $221 million budget also includes $46 million in spending for city enterprise funds that does not affect the city tax rate. Enterprise fund spending is largely comprised of $20.7 million for Portland International Jetport administration and the $11.2 million city assessment from the Portland Water District.

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

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.