PORTLAND — Operating details are unclear, but a new city fund will assist immigrant asylum seekers with basic housing, food and medical costs.
The $2.63 million Community Support Fund was created June 24 when the City Council approved a $225 million municipal budget for fiscal year 2016. It will prevent an estimated 500 families with 900 people from losing financial assistance.
“I felt it was important to continue to support some kind of assistance program to help support asylum seekers,” Councilor David Brenerman said June 25.
The one-year program is open to all immigrants currently receiving General Assistance vouchers. They are otherwise blocked from federally funded assistance, including Temporary Aid to Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Anyone seeking asylum after July 1 will not be eligible for aid.
It takes a minimum of 180 days for asylum seekers to receive a federal permit enabling them to work.
Citing the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, state Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew a year ago announced the department would no longer reimburse local programs for vouchers given immigrants who could not establish a legal right to be in the country.
The Community Fund was created to exist outside the city General Assistance program and will not seek state reimbursements. But it was an unexpected increase in state education funding that allowed the program to be created, Brenerman noted.
Because city schools may receive $1.7 million more in general purpose aid than anticipated in the $102.8 million budget passed by voters May 12, the extra money will go to reduce the tax demand on city property owners.
This allowed Brenerman and Councilor Justin Costa to suggest the additional spending on the municipal side of the budget, while keeping the overall projected tax increase at around 2.9 percent.
Councilors eventually voted to increase spending 3.1 percent due to other additions to the budget, and the $2.6 million is about $500,000 less than the city spent in the last year to provide assistance to asylum seekers.
“If you had a GA program, $2.6 would not be enough money,” Brenerman conceded, adding the city will also seek donations to provide more aid.
Brenerman and Costa built their amendment to the budget on top of $350,000 allocated by former acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian as transition funding for people who are losing assistance.
The program will be administered by the city Department of Health and Human Services. City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Grondin on Monday said the details and rules are still under consideration.
The city joined the Maine Municipal Association in a lawsuit against the state DHHS to force the department to follow required rule-making procedures on the policy banning aid to ineligible immigrants, and to require the state to reimburse the city most of the expenses of providing the vouchers.
The plaintiffs won a mixed victory in Cumberland County Superior Court on June 9 when Justice Thomas D. Warren ruled the DHHS needed to follow procedures to set the policy. However, he also ruled the department would be harmed if forced to make reimbursements not allowed under federal law.
City Corporation Counsel Danielle West Chuhta said June 24 the plaintiffs are seeking more clarification from Warren as to whether he meant past or future reimbursements.
She also said the new city fund should pass legal muster, despite state and federal restrictions, because Warren did not address local spending in his decision.