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TANF caps may leave towns picking up the bill
STATE — Some town officials and advocates feel changes to state rules governing eligibility for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and adjustments to General Assistance (GA) programs are shifting costs from the state onto cities and towns.
TANF is a federal program that provides cash benefits to qualified families as a short-term measure to prevent extreme need.
The 2012 state budget includes a change in TANF eligibility that limits the amount of time that families can remain on the program to 60 months (five years).
Federal law imposes the five-year limit, but until June 1 this year, Maine extended TANF for families with state funds.
The change was implemented retroactively – families that were over the TANF limit were informed earlier in the year that their benefits would end on June 1.
John Martins, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) says that when the change was implemented, 2,100 people were over the 60-month limit.
Families can appeal and may qualify for an exemption or extension based on family health, disability, unemployment and other issues.
Others may turn to municipal GA for aid.
Buckfield Town Manager Dana Lee is frustrated by the changes to TANF, particularly since the state has also decreased its reimbursement to towns for GA spending, from 90 to 85 percent and reduced the "overall maximum" – the amount a person or a family can live on – by 10 percent from 2011.
"They just arbitrarily cut it down to make sure recipients don't get as much as last year," Lee says.
Personally, Lee sees the changes to TANF and GA as more examples of the state passing costs off to municipalities and local taxpayers.
He says that it is a process that has gone on for years, regardless of what political party is in power in Augusta.
"When the state's budget gets in crisis, you know who's going to foot the bill," he says.
"The state just abandons its responsibilities and shifts it to the towns and says 'you figure out how to fund it.'"
According to Lee, three people in Buckfield have been removed from the TANF program and one has approached the town for assistance.
In Oxford County, the GA maximum ranges from $442 per month for a single person to $1,130 for a family of five.
According to Lee, there are two budget items that towns are required to over-extend due to necessity – GA and winter road maintenance.
This means that if towns have many new, qualified GA applicants they will be required to aid them.
Buckfield only budgeted $2,400 for GA for fiscal year 2013.
Kate Dufour, a legislative advocate for the Maine Municipal Association (MMA), says it is impossible to know what the effect of the new TANF limits will be – people who applied for extensions or exemptions may not know if they have been approved yet.
Nevertheless, Dufour estimates that 25 percent of those who are removed from TANF will turn to municipal GA.
She agrees with Lee's assessment that the new TANF limits represent a shift onto local taxpayers.
Shifting an entire group of people off of state assistance doesn't erase the need, Dufour says – recipients will seek aid from other sources.
Shannon Moxcey, a General Assistance Specialist with Community Concepts, is the new GA administrator for Norway and Paris, which have the two highest GA budgets in Oxford Hills – $110,000 and $56,897, respectively.
Moxcey says that she can't really anticipate how the TANF limits would affect Norway's GA account this early, but she has already met with several people who have reached the limit and are off the program.
Moxcey has been directing people to some incidental funds that are available through Department of Health and Human Services and pointing them to the TANF appeals process.
Paris Town Manager Phil Tarr calls the impact of the TANF caps "a looming problem," and agrees that the adjustments may leave towns paying the difference.
He says that the state has already reduced its funding for schools and state revenue sharing, putting the burden on local taxpayers.
For Oxford Hills, the TANF and GA adjustments may not have critical effects on town's finances, but the reduction in state reimbursement will still have an effect, Tarr says.
"It's probably going to affect the general assistance program in every town to some degree," he guesses.
For cities like Portland and Lewiston, the changes may have serious consequences.
Lee says that the size of city GA programs means the loss of state reimbursement will have a bigger impact.
"If you take 5 percent of, let's say, a $5,000 General Assistance budget ... it's a small insult. But for the cities, that's going to be big money."