Portland leaders mull General Assistance options, costs

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PORTLAND — The legality of city policy on General Assistance vouchers remains unclear, while the specter of 900 people losing assistance July 1 looms larger.

On Monday, Mayor Michael Brennan brought together business leaders and recent immigrants outside City Hall to call for support for state legislation that would allow immigrants seeking asylum to continue to receive vouchers for housing, food and personal items in programs administered locally and overseen by the state.

“It is why I am who I am today,” Ebenezer African Grocery Store owner Aimee Nyirakanyana said.

She said she received vouchers after arriving from Rwanda in 2009. After her status as an asylum seeker was granted and she could begin working, she opened the market at 654 Congress St.

Nyirakanyana was joined by other immigrants, including Christophe Ndikuriyo, owner of Hi 5 Taxi, who arrived in the city in 2011 with his wife and three children.

Ndikuriyo said he received vouchers for almost a year, and began working when he could.

The clearance can take a minimum of 180 days, but Chris Hall, Portland Community Chamber of Commerce chief executive, and business counselor Tae Chong of Coastal Enterprises, said Nyirakanyana and Ndikuriyo exemplify how new Mainers are reinvigorating the economy.

“Imagine the number of businesses that would not have started without them,” Chong said.

The press conference came six days after Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren handed the Maine Municipal Association, the cities of Westbrook and Portland, and two Burundian immigrants a split decision in a lawsuit against the state Department of Health and Human Services over its 2014 policy prohibiting aid to ineligible immigrants.

Warren ruled the DHHS illegally circumvented the process for changing its rules. But he also said that because a 1996 federal law prohibits aid to ineligible immigrants, the state does not have to reimburse the city for $2.1 million in vouchers provided to those deemed ineligible.

Warren’s decision was discussed at a June 11 City Council Finance Committee meeting and a council executive session on Monday.

On June 11, Councilor Jon Hinck expressed the conundrum faced in providing vouchers.

“Voting for something that is contrary to federal law would be an act of civil disobedience. That doesn’t sound bad to me, but it would be done with someone else’s money,” he said.

The bill being considered by the Legislature, LD 369, would reverse the DHHS policy on aid to asylum seekers. If not enacted, the city will stop providing vouchers to ineligible immigrants on July 1. Almost 900 people in 500  families would lose vouchers, acting City Manager Michael Sauschuck estimated.

“None of us is going to sit in that chamber and vote for putting people out on the street,” Councilor Jill Duson said.

Duson said she wants to fund a “one-time” assistance program of $500,000 to help those displaced, but the program would only last though the end of September.

In her fiscal year 2016 budget, former acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian allocated $350,000 in emergency discretionary funds for the same purpose.

Even if legal, providing vouchers to recipients considered ineligible would cost the city as much as $3.9 million without state reimbursement.

City Finance Director Brendan O’Connell has estimated each $500,000 added to budget would add 7 cents to the property tax rate, already projected to increase 58 cents from the current $20 per $1,000 of assessed value.

The current reimbursements the city won’t get from the state could approach $5 million because of state audit findings on record keeping at the Oxford Shelter. The lost aid will be covered by using city surplus funds.

The funds must be restored over time, though, in order to protect the city’s bond rating.

At the June 11 meeting, councilors learned the city could also get a net $583,000 boost in state aid if the Legislature continues the current formula for providing General Assistance reimbursements instead of a shift favored by Gov. Paul LePage.

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.