AUGUSTA, Maine — A Wilton Republican said Wednesday if the state wants its General Assistance program run with fairness and consistency, it should take over administration of the program — which is currently run by local municipal officials.

“I am tired of the argument about one town not doing this the right way,” Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee during a public hearing on his bill, LD 632.

“If we need to do it the right way, then the state needs to do it so it is consistent,” Saviello said.

Saviello listed four reasons he believed the administration of the program was best left in the hands of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, including it would be the best agency to determine a person’s eligibility for that program or others that may be available to help someone in financial crisis.

“Although municipalities are mandated to provide the service according to state law and rule, these procedures are oftentimes interpreted by different interest groups involved in the process,” Saviello said. “It leads to finger pointing and assignment of blame, and most of the time, it’s laid at the feet of the municipal office trying to do the best it can.”

City and town officials are “under continuous scrutiny by advocates, policy makers and property taxpayers,” Saviello said.

General Assistance is a state and locally funded program that was originally intended to provide short-term and immediate financial help to a person in an unexpected crisis. The benefit, based on financial need, is intended to help with housing, food, medicine or other life essentials including heating fuel payments.

The state’s budget for the program is set at about $13 million per year, up from $5.6 million in 2004. Under the current system, the state reimburses most municipalities at 50 percent. But Portland, Lewiston and Bangor are reimbursed at 90 percent. The higher rate is triggered when a city or town spends more than 0.03 percent of its total state property valuation on General Assistance.

Portland’s General Assistance spending has faced criticism and scrutiny from the administration of Gov. Paul LePage, which has called the city “an extreme outlier.”

Portland’s mayor has defended its spending, noting the city operates the state’s largest homeless shelter and is home to the state’s largest population of asylum-seeking immigrants who are ineligible for most other programs as they await legal permission from the federal government to go to work.

LePage’s two-year state budget proposal also looks to reform the way the state reimburses municipalities for what they spend on the program. Under the new proposal, every municipality in Maine would be eligible for a 90 percent match from the state, but the new match is based on 40 percent of the municipality’s six-year average of expenditures. The cap also would be weighted for unemployment, so years with higher unemployment would bring greater state reimbursements.

Portland, Bangor and Lewiston are projected to lose funding under the proposal: Lewiston would lose $45,000 per year, Portland would lose $4 million and Bangor would lose about $600,000.

Currently, only Portland, Bangor and Lewiston are eligible for the higher reimbursement rate, but Portland spent about 13 times more than Lewiston did in 2014 and about five times as much as Bangor.

Kate Dufour, a lobbyist for the Maine Municipal Association, which represents nearly 500 cities and towns in the state, said local officials are so frustrated with the program and ever-changing rules and reimbursement rates that her organization agrees the state should administer the program.

Dufour said the association’s 70-member policy committee endorsed full state control of General Assistance, and Saviello was asked to sponsor the legislation to return the program to the state’s oversight.

Dufour said cities and towns were “incredibly frustrated,” adding that the debate over the program’s use in Portland was hurting all communities’ ability to administer General Assistance.

“Protect us against funding changes to this program that result in the state receiving benefit at our expense,” Dufour said.

She said if lawmakers believe the state is spending too much on the program, then they should change eligibility standards for the program.

Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said the Maine Mayors Coalition also is united in support of ceding General Assistance oversight to state management.

“I think we would all be doing handstands if that bill were to pass,” Macdonald said.

But those opposing the shift back to the state, including Sam Adolphsen, chief executive officer for DHHS, said the current design of the program was “wise.”

“In that it allows those individuals who understand the circumstances and needs in their local community to make good decisions regarding those members of their town who will receive welfare benefits,” Adolphsen said.

He said he believes General Assistance is being administered effectively throughout the state, “with some exceptions that we are working through with municipalities.”

Saviello’s bill, along with several others aimed at reforming General Assistance, is scheduled for a work session before the committee on April 28. The committee will likely vote a recommendation for the full Legislature at that time before sending the bill to the state Senate for consideration.

Scott Thistle

Scott Thistle is the State Politics Editor for the Lewiston Sun Journal. He has covered federal, state and local politics in Maine for nearly two decades.