WILTON — The Wilton Select Board approved changes to the city’s General Assistance Order at its Tuesday, Sept. 20, meeting.
This year’s changes relate to the overall maximum levels of aid a municipality can provide, City Manager Perry Ellsworth told council.
Ellsworth said changes to the maximums include:
• A one-person household can receive an additional $38 in assistance for $728.
• A two-person household may receive an additional $37 for 774.
• Three-person households can receive an additional $63 for $909.
• Households of four can receive an additional $110 for $1,229.
• Five-person households can receive an additional $63 for $1,566.
Ellsworth told the council that the state requires municipalities to pass these increases by Oct. 1 in order to receive a 70% reimbursement from the state for the funds Wilton spends on the program.
Maine’s General Assistance Program, overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Maine Municipal Association, “helps individuals and families meet their basic needs.”
This assistance takes the form of financial assistance, in the form of payment vouchers, for: household or personal supplies; food, accommodation costs; fuel and utilities; medical, dental and prescription expenses; and burial costs.
A person or a household who needs help makes a request to the town hall of the municipality where he currently resides or is about to move there.
To be eligible, an applicant must provide income information, current bank account status, a list of expenses (including rent, electricity, food, medical expenses, taxes, or transport) and a list of “valuable things” such as cash on hand, bank accounts, cars, etc. according to the DHHS.
While the municipality requires you to provide information about “things of value”, Pine Tree Legal says “if you can’t afford your basic expenses, you can get help even if you own a house or a car. “.
Additionally, Ellsworth told the board that if an applicant is unemployed, they should be referred to the Wilton Career Center first, unless it is an emergency application.
But, Ellsworth said, city benefits generally go to people who work but “don’t make enough money…funds to pay the bills.”
Wilton’s general assistance program is overseen by administrator Cindy Dunham.
During the discussion, Selectperson Mike Wells raised concerns about the program.
“It’s more about justifying the need,” Wells said.
Wells referenced a time when he saw someone calling for general assistance who had a $25,000 Harley Davidson motorcycle.
“I could give you many examples of tenants I have who are of the same mindset: if it’s free, he’ll take it, the money will go elsewhere, new motorbike, new boat, etc.” says Wells.
“It looks like a bigger problem than we can solve at this table,” said board chairman David Leavitt.
“We have to be good stewards and put in place all the palliatives that are legally granted,” Wells said.
He would have that conversation with Dunham, Wells added.
“My experience is that Cindy [Dunham] does a good job going through and making sure everything [requirements] is fulfilled,” said Selectperson Tiffany Maiuri.
“You’re overseers of the poor, that’s part of your job, the title of Selectperson,” Ellsworth said.
“Personal opinion – we’ve had this discussion before – defines poverty. Bad judgment, bad decisions? Wells said.
“There’s just no getting around it,” Ellsworth said. “When I do, I reach into my pocket and give them money… whatever you own, whatever you earn, what are you earning right now?”
“It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be broken… And I agree, David, it’s bigger than we can solve here. But we have to have the discussion because like you said you can put your hand in your pocket and pay some of it for the person which is maybe a dollar or two more than the income,” said Wells. “But what I don’t want to do as a coach is touch the pockets of other people, the taxpayers of the city, and donate money without making sure that person is really in need, instead to ride a $25,000 Harley. [Davidson motorcycle].”
Ellsworth said if the city denies the application, each applicant has the right to appeal the decision to DHHS. The city could end up having to pay that applicant the aid plus a fine, in that case, Ellsworth said.
“It’s part of the business that no one really likes to do, but it’s part of the business that, as has been said, Cindy does a great job of sorting out,” Ellsworth explained. “There are requirements throughout the process and I suggest you sit down with her and go through it to get your questions answered.”
In an interview, Ellsworth shared that he thought the program was important as someone who “grew up really poor.”
“I think people just need general assistance, just need general assistance. Am I still okay with the way things are presented? No,” Ellsworth said.
He stressed that he felt “very passionate about the fact that everyone should have the basic necessities of life [met]at least.”
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