2012-06-08 / Community

Councilor speaks up about general asssistance cut

By Jack Flagler Staff Writer

In April, the Maine State Legislature enacted changes to its ordinance that governs general assistance programs across the state. The change reduced the maximum income allowed for someone who receives general assistance, and mandated that assistance with housing and rent could only be provided for nine months of a calendar year.

On June 4, the South Portland City Council unanimously voted to pass the new limit on income maximums, but the decision to move forward with final action on the change in the housing ordinance was not unanimous. Councilor Thomas Coward voted against the city adopting the change, saying he was angry with the state’s decision.

“We have a lot of people who depend on general assistance for their housing. To expect that you can spend three months of the year without housing is just more than I can vote for,” Coward said. “This is part of the (Gov. Paul) LePage administration trying to balance the state’s budget on the backs of poor people.”

Coward added that he did not expect his fellow councilors to follow his lead in voting against the ordinance change because of the financial hit the city would take.

South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey said if the council were to defeat the mandated ordinance change, the state would no longer fund the 50 percent of South Portland’s general assistance program that it now supports. Mayor Patti Smith said it was a difficult vote, but the most important priority for her was to ensure the council did not hurt South Portland citizens and their ability to receive funding on the general assistance program.

While Coward said he understood the negative ramifications of the council defeating the mandated change, he still found it important to voice his opposition. “I think somebody’s just got to stand up and say this stinks,” Coward said.

The council voted to take final action on the mandated ordinance change on June 18, in keeping with the state’s request to adopt the change by July 1. Anyone who seeks rent assistance through general assistance from July 1 through June 30, 2013, will only be able to do so for nine of those 12 months.

“I certainly hear Councilor Coward,” said City Councilor Tom Blake. “I’m going to support (the ordinance change) this evening, but it is just a first reading. Perhaps for final reading, we could look into that and be absolutely certain what the consequences are if we do defeat this. I don’t like it, but I think our arm is being twisted so that we have no options.”

“This is a state law. It’s a reality,” Coward said. “What I can do is speak out in the council and say this is immoral. The people who put this in place are people elected by the voters. Ultimately, it comes back to who you vote in for elected office. I would be very surprised if any legislator from South Portland was happy to vote for this. This is not something that any legislator that I’ve ever met would be happy with.”

Kathleen Babeu, general assistance administrator in South Portland, told the city councilors her office is prepared for the change.

“Generally, general assistance is temporary, and people can get back on their feet,” Babeu said. “You can normally do that within half a year. We’re working with clients on an individual basis to make sure they’re safe and secure.”

Babeu added that the number one priority for most people on general assistance is paying rent. Residents on general assistance must have an income of less than $812 a month in a household of one, she said, adding that her office will do all it can to help those on the program and alleviate potential homelessness.

Staff Writer Jack Flagler can be reached at 282-4337 ext. 219.

Return to top