State audit accuses Portland of financial mismanagement

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PORTLAND — Despite audit findings that the city General Assistance program violates state regulations in several ways, Mayor Michael Brennan on Monday defended its administration and operations.

“I am confident the city has run GA in accordance with state law and with practices endorsed by this and previous administrations,” Brennan said in a City Council workshop discussion about the state Department of Health and Human Services audit received Feb. 20.

Brennan added he and city staff would be meeting with Gov. Paul LePage and perhaps DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew to discuss the audit and other issues about state reimbursements to the voucher program.

The workshop, which also initiated discussion on procedures leading to the sale of city land, and whether councilors should endorse a brief in support of marriage equality at the U.S. Supreme Court, preceded an hour-long meeting.

In the meeting, councilors approved the sale of city-owned land on Cliff Island and at 71 Hanover St. in Bayside; approved a three-year labor agreement with 125 city police officers and detectives, retroactive to Jan. 5, 2014, and approved an amendment to the Portland Exposition Building lease with the Maine Red Claws basketball team.

Councilors also gave approved hiring Gina Tapp as human resources director. Tapp will start March 9 at an annual salary of $98,000.

Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian had expected the General Assistance discussion to center on the $6 million the city has disbursed in housing and basic needs vouchers in the fiscal year that began July 1, 2014, but the conversation soon shifted to the audit conducted last month by DHHS field examiners.

Using records provided by the city, the audit said staff at the Oxford Street Shelter did not perform financial background checks of people who stayed at the shelter for more than one night. That allowed 13 of the 30 “top stayers” to remain in shelters, even though they each had at least $20,000 in savings.

One-night stays are allowed without more verification under a presumption of need, but the audit concluded “it is clear that the City’s practices with respect to admitting and retaining persons in its shelters are inconsistent with statutory requirements.”

The DHHS audit also cites the city for “incorrectly submitting reimbursement requests for individuals who are not United States citizens or are otherwise ineligible for state and local public benefits.”

City Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said she has asked for an extension of the 10-day reply period and will file a management action plan in response to the audit. Similar findings in a 2013 audit are still being appealed, she added.

“We have a list of proposed changes,” Hill-Christian said, but she and West-Chuhta noted some discussions also pertain to the civil lawsuit filed against the DHHS by the Maine Municipal Association, with Portland as a co-plaintiff.

Dawn Stiles, the city’s Health and Human Services director, said staff review the finances of anyone who applies for General Assistance beyond the one-day presumption of need.

The suit against DHHS, filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, contests an agency policy instituted last June that ends state reimbursement of assistance given to undocumented immigrants. The MMA and city, along with the city of Westbrook, asked the court to require the DHHS to use its rule change procedures, including public hearings, before making the policy change.

Bayside land, Expo lease

The sale of the Public Services salt and sand storage facility to a group led by state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, was opposed only by Councilor Ed Suslovic, who sought a delay in approval until more is learned about where sand and salt will be stored in the future.

The $340,000 sale will allow Bayside Bowl to expand from its Alder Street location and create new space and facilities for Portland Community Squash.

The Red Claws lease amendments add 10 years to the current expiration date of 2019, and allow the team to replace center-court bleachers with seats, at a cost of about $366,000 for next season.

The police contract provides raises of 1 percent, retroactive to Jan. 5, 2014, July 6, 2014, and Jan. 4. A 3 percent raise will take effect Jan. 3, 2016. The contract expires Dec. 31, 2016. Of the $358,000 needed for the contract, $158,000 is currently budgeted.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or 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.