BELFAST, Maine — The proposed Belfast municipal budget, which raises the city’s portion of the property tax bill by 6 percent, includes a nearly 600 percent increase to the General Assistance program, according to city officials.
Still, Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum said Tuesday that the proposed $9.15 million city budget, which will cost taxpayers about $300,000 more than last year, may not go far enough to provide relief after years of extreme municipal belt-tightening measures.
“I’m really worried that it’s still too tight,” Slocum said. “That we have budget lines so tight we will exceed them. And we’re not really contributing much toward surplus.”
The biggest single line-item increase is found in the General Assistance program, which has jumped from $33,000 in the last fiscal year to $190,000.
According to Slocum, that $157,000 increase in funding is not optional, and in large part stems from changes to state law that have ended up putting more pressure and costs on municipalities.
Belfast has seen more need for emergency services after a state law that went into effect this spring cut the reimbursement rate to providers of government-funded, community-based mental health services. Under the new law, mentally ill patients with MaineCare can only receive certain government-funded Medicaid services if they are diagnosed with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services reportedly notified more than 24,000 Mainers recently that they could lose community support services.
Some of those people already have made their way to Belfast, in crisis and in acute need of help, according to the city manager.
General Assistance exists in every Maine town and city to provide immediate help to eligible people who do not have enough money for basic needs, including such essentials as food, heating fuel and rent or mortgage assistance. But recently, when Belfast city staffers have met with folks in need and talked to them about what General Assistance can do and the rules that must be followed, it has not always been a straightforward or easy matter to get the information across successfully.
“The state is changing the regulations on who is entitled to get caseworkers,” Slocum said. “We don’t have time to be their caseworkers, and they need a caseworker. We have one person. It’s a problem for General Assistance. These people have needs.”
The midcoast city’s approach to the increase in General Assistance applicants seems to be diametrically opposed to that of the town of Madawaska, which has proposed random drug testing of all General Assistance applicants. In June, members of the town’s Board of Selectmen approved moving forward with developing such a policy — the first town in Maine to do so. The move has been met by strong pushback from Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Maine ACLU, groups that have said such testing would violate constitutional rights.
Madawaska Town Manager Ryan Pelletier said this week that requiring General Assistance applicants to be subjected to random drug testing would increase “fairness and equity,” and that town employees already have to comply with this kind of testing.
In Belfast, by contrast, city officials say they are looking to put more money into General Assistance to meet state mandated obligations. Last year, the city hired Pam Chase to be the new administrator for the program, and she learned that Belfast previously had been shirking its General Assistance obligations.
“We are going way up in General Assistance spending because it should have been much higher in the past,” Slocum said. “If somebody presents themselves here, the state is telling us we have to help them.”
In the past, the city often has helped needy residents by paying for temporary shelter in local motels. But going forward, Belfast needs to do more to get people into affordable housing, according to the city manager.
“We don’t think that putting people in motels month after month is healthy,” Slocum said, adding that the state of Maine will reimburse Belfast for 70 percent of funds used for General Assistance. “It’s offset. That’s the good news.”
Citizens will have the opportunity to share their thoughts about the proposed budget at a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, at Belfast City Hall. Under the proposed budget, the Belfast mill rate would go up from 22.4 to 22.9 per thousand dollars of valuation. That means that the owner of a property valued at $200,000 would see their tax bill go up $100.
Before the public hearing, Slocum would like taxpayers to know that for years now, Belfast city councilors have been considering the school budget and the county budget before they set the municipal budget, a practice he believes has been detrimental to the city.
Last year, the city budget represented just 30 percent of Belfast property taxes. More than twice that amount, or 61.3 percent, goes to schools and 8.5 percent goes to the city’s share of the Waldo County budget.
“Every year, the elected officials of Belfast ask what the county and school are going to do before they set the mill rate,” Slocum said.
In practice, passing tight municipal budgets has meant that city employees often are paid less than Waldo County or Regional School Unit 71 employees. This year, the city has lost two longtime employees who left to work for Waldo County.
“We want people to understand we’re not the reason their taxes are going up,” Slocum said. “But people at home don’t want to hear the city budget is cut to the bone when they see their property tax go up.”