Cuts proposed in Gov. Paul LePage's budget to a program that provides emergency financial assistance would throw poor and disadvantaged people into the streets and foist new burdens on property taxpayers, mayors of Maine's largest cities said Thursday.
As the 10 mayors announced the formation of a Mayors Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development, they said their top priority is fighting the general assistance cuts, which could save the state nearly $6 million.
Mostly state funded, general assistance provides emergency help -- often in the form of housing -- to people in need. The state spent $11.8 million on the program last year, well over the budgeted amount of $7.4 million, according to administration officials.
Among the changes sought in the budget are a 90-day limit on housing allowances, lowering towns' and cities' reimbursement rates and cutting off eligibility for people receiving Temporary Aid to Needy Families aid from the federal government. The state provides most of the funding for the locally administered general assistance.
Speaking for the coalition, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said LePage's proposal would have a "far-reaching and sweeping" impact that will affect thousands of people across the state. State officials did not know how many people are enrolled in the town- and city-run program, and the Maine Municipal Association also had no total but said the figure fluctuates.
Waterville Mayor Karen Heck called the proposals the latest in "this war on poor people."
"The number of poor people is increasing in the state and we're not just going to let them live in the streets," said Heck, top official in a city where LePage also served as mayor.
The mayors of Auburn, Augusta, Bangor, Biddeford, Lewiston, Saco, South Portland and Westbrook are also part of the coalition, which was taking its concerns to the Legislature's Appropriations Committee on Thursday as the panel concluded hearings on that and other budget proposals.
Brennan said the mayors, through the coalition, will also push for state policies that foster economic growth, a skilled workforce and reasonable tax rates that support growth.
But the general assistance cuts would come on top of Medicaid reductions that have already left hundreds of Mainers without health care coverage and force cities to pass the costs of taking care of the poor onto already overburdened property taxpayers, the mayors said.
"All of us as mayors share the same concern, and that is pressure on property taxes," said Alan Casavant, a Democrat who serves both as Biddeford's mayor and state representative for the city.
Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said his city, one of the state's poorest, "would take a real hit" from the cuts. Macdonald said the mayors will present lawmakers an alternative to LePage's proposal.
The cuts come at a time the state faces repeated budget shortfalls and flat revenues. Administration officials say they're intended to limit the growth of the general assistance program, which has more than doubled between 2003 and 2011 to $11.8 million. Officials say that nearly 90 percent of the money goes toward housing, and that's not an appropriate use of the money.
"It's gone far beyond its original intent," said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. She said the administration is willing to work with municipalities toward common ground.