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Reforms needed to sustain Maine's general assistance program, officials say

Maine's Department of Health and Human Services is calling for an overhaul of the state's general assistance program, citing the added burdens placed on it by the pandemic, an influx of asylum seekers, a loss of federal funds and an ongoing housing crisis.

DHHS Deputy Commissioner Bethany Hamm said the department wants to convene a group of municipalities, community organizations and others to discuss possible reforms to the program, including its application process and municipal reimbursement scheme.

The state currently reimburses municipalities for 70% of general assistance costs. It covered up to 90%of municipal costs before 2015.

"We, like many municipal leaders, recognize that there are longer-term GA permanent reforms that will need to occur," Hamm told the housing committee Tuesday. "There is a very high likelihood that we are not going to be able to sustain $34 million and above in annual spending."

Maine spent $12.7 million on general assistance in 2019, but the number jumped to about $37 million last fiscal year. The vast majority of those costs — more than 80% in 2022 — were reimbursed to or paid for by the City of Portland.

Some Maine municipalities say the number of people applying for general assistance actually dropped during the pandemic, because the federally-funded emergency rental relief program covered rent and utility costs for eligible households.

But as those funds dry up, more Mainers are beginning to turn again to general assistance for help.

The city of Bangor, for example, has seen a 75% increase in general assistance costs during the first eight months of the fiscal year compared to all of last year, said city manager Debbie Laurie.

And deputy city manager Martin Puckett said he too believes general assistance applications are on the rise in Presque Isle, although a lack of available housing for those with vouchers has deterred some individuals from applying at all.