AUGUSTA, Maine — New recommendations floated Thursday by the Alexander Group for changes to Maine’s statewide General Assistance system are causing a sense of deja vu among municipal officials who say the ideas aren’t new and are geared toward the simple goal of ending the state’s financial support of the program.

General Assistance, funded jointly by the state and municipalities but administered locally, is designed to provide immediate, one-time aid to people and families facing crises such as an empty heating oil tank or an eviction notice. Since taking office in 2011, LePage has made a number of attempts to revamp the program, including a bill earlier this year, LD 1844, that would have reduced reimbursement payments to towns and required monthly reporting by towns to the state. The bill died in committee.

LePage and his Office of Policy and Management also have suggested other changes to General Assistance in budget bills, most of which were rejected by the Legislature.

With the exception of Bangor, Portland and Lewiston, which receive elevated state reimbursements because of their large percentages of poor people and together comprise about 64 percent of General Assistance allocations statewide, the state and municipalities split the cost of the benefits evenly.

The nearly $1 million Alexander Group report, which has been at the center of controversy since late last year when it was commissioned by the LePage administration, recommends capping state support of General Assistance, moving the program’s administration to the state or county level, eliminating the program altogether or placing limits on how many times a family or individual can receive aid.

“Most of these recommendations, we’ve seen one way or another in the last four years,” said Kate Dufour, senior legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association. “Our legislative policy committee has historically opposed these bills for a couple of reasons: This was a partnership designed between the state and municipalities to ensure that there is a program available when nothing else is there. … If the state gets out of the service of sharing the cost of this safety net, the municipalities are going to have to pick up the cost.”

According to the Alexander Group report and other sources, the total state and local cost of General Assistance was about $10.9 million in 2011, $13.5 million in 2012 and about $12 million in 2013. That money provided an average benefit of $966 to approximately 12,000 people each year.

In addition to the statewide totals, municipalities cover the costs of administration.

Bangor City Manager Cathy Conlow said nearly $3 million was distributed in Bangor in 2012. That amount sank to about $2.2 million in 2013.

Most Maine towns, especially the smaller ones, measure their General Assistance budgets in hundred or thousands of dollars.

“I’m not sure what the problem is that they’re trying to solve here,” said Conlow of the LePage administration. “I think this is a philosophical issue, not a budgetary issue.”

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said efforts to reform General Assistance are part of LePage’s larger emphasis on welfare reform.

“I don’t think Mainers would say $12 million is pocket change,” she wrote in response to questions from the BDN. “The governor is not interested in identifying savings in only parts of the welfare system because Maine taxpayers are paying for all of it.”

Conlow and others theorize that it is part of a larger effort by LePage to shift state costs to municipalities and property taxpayers. They cite the administration’s past efforts to cut municipal revenue sharing, push education costs to towns and cities and cut property tax refund programs.

Conlow said that since the beginning of this year, when thousands of people were ejected from the Medicaid program, known here as MaineCare, because the state hasn’t expanded it under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, Bangor’s weekly spending on General Assistance tripled from an average of about $1,000 to $3,000.

“We don’t pay for doctor’s appointments but we do pay for prescriptions,” said Conlow. “MaineCare paid for that prior to Jan. 1.”

Bath City Manager Bill Giroux said his city’s General Assistance budget in 2013 was about $64,000, half of which was reimbursed by the state. Giroux believes the Alexander Group’s recommendation to regionalize administration of the program, perhaps to the county level, has merit.

In 2007, Bath partnered with the towns of West Bath and Brunswick to administer the program together, which Giroux said nearly cut Bath’s costs in half because of reduced overhead. He said it’s a program that for the most part hasn’t changed much in decades and could use some attention.

“It’s a good idea to take an in-depth look at these types of things every once in a while so the governor and Legislature can compare how we’re doing this with other states,” said Giroux, who added that he does not agree with the state’s apparent efforts to pull out of the program.

“It seems like this is the same way revenue sharing has been treated,” said Giroux. “If you just keep cutting the cap, over time the state would completely get out of the program. Then it would get administered more and more in the towns and it would become less uniform.”

Some Democrats, including Rep. Richard Farnsworth, D-Portland, who is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said efforts to curtail General Assistance are “inhumane” because they affect the most vulnerable Mainers.

“I believe that this has to do with a political agenda that the governor has picked up on with his base,” said Farnsworth. “It’s the same kind of argument that goes on when we’re talking about the EBT cards. … It is really a part of the process of trying to point evil fingers at the poor and saying, ‘you’re trying to rip us off,’ when in reality it’s such a small percentage of the state budget.”

Bennett said Friday that the current General Assistance program “encourages spending,” especially in larger municipalities that receive 90 percent reimbursement from the state once a certain threshold is reached in local spending. She also said that LePage believes General Assistance should not be a housing program and that the city of Portland is responsible for distributing the majority of the benefits. That city consumed about 45 percent of the total program in 2013, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Should the administration choose to move forward with a new approach that aims to strengthen the integrity of the department’s programs or initiate savings for Maine taxpayers, we will have open and honest conversations with Mainers about proposed changes,” said Bennett.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.