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Town of Windham Moves General Assistance In-House to Cut Costs

by Terrilyn Simpson

A Maine town has taken General Assistance administration into their own hands – and has seen big savings as a result.

The town of Windham, Maine in June opted not to renew the contract with a non-profit agency handling the town’s general assistance program. Last year, with the program under the administration of the People’s Regional Opportunity Program (PROP), the town’s general assistance budget was approximately $450,000. As of January 10, 2012 – halfway through the town’s fiscal year — the town, handling its own program, has spent $25,000.

There is a cautionary note. While the fiscal calendar year has reached the halfway mark, the distribution of money likely has not. General assistance is not typically paid out evenly throughout the year, says Assistant Town Manager Phyllis Moss, who emphasizes that winter is a tough period when requests for help peak, meaning there could be a significant spike over the next several months.

And although last year’s payout was record high, Moss also noted the hard times. “The economy has had its challenges,” she reflected in an even tone, adding it had been tough for many communities. “Most communities experienced sharp increases.”

The town first hooked up with PROP in 2008 following the retirement of a welfare director and a decision to fill the void by contracting out.

The reasons for ending the arrangement seem to hinge on a confluence of factors, not the least of which was the escalating general assistance budget. Concern over how stringently the program was being managed and an increased hourly rate quote from PROP for a new budget period added to
the mix.

The move followed an independent auditor’s review, conducted “because of concerns about the rapid increase in the Town’s General Assistance expenditures, especially compared to surrounding communities, even given the economic recession” according to a memorandum from Windham Town
Manager Anthony Plant to Council members.

The review “showed a significant lack of documentation supporting some assistance decisions, though no instances of improper payments were found.”

Town management met with PROP even before receiving the audit results and identified improvements in documentation, reporting and accountability. The Council addressed the issues at a workshop and asked staff “to develop ideas for incorporating improvements into the town’s General Assistance Ordinance.”

According to the Special Report on General Assistance, covering March 2009 through June 2010, the auditor first randomly selected 50 individual general assistance files and verified routine information, such as an applicant having completed and signed an application form for the 30-day time period covered. The auditor then recalculated the amount of unmet need.

An applicant’s unmet financial need is based on the difference between the net household income and the total expenses allowed under state guidelines — these including costs for items such as rent, food and electricity.

The auditor then reviewed the total amount awarded — which should not have exceeded the lesser of either the unmet need or the maximum amount of general assistance allowed.

Although exceptions to the formula are allowed for emergency cases, where the general assistance administrator can use “discretion” to allow more than the maximum dollar amount dictated by guidelines, the discretionary determinations of 11 of the 50 cases sampled lacked proper documentation.

Only six of the 11 emergency cases listed the emergency — the other five had no related notes in the file.

Five of the 11 cases had no written documentation on file for allowed work deductions which resulted in an increase of benefits.

And in two of the 11 cases, the unmet need was calculated wrong.

The town ended — or did not renew — a contract with PROP in June of 2011.

At a January Council meeting, councilor Matt Noel commented on the savings resulting from the switch to an in-house administration of the assistance program, further bolstered by a new General Assistance administrator overseen by the town manager’s office. Even with the inherent expenses of adding a staff person, costs are going down while the program is being managed better, said Noel.

“The new work performed by the new administrator in-house under the town manager’s office is doing a great job….We’re seeing costs much better, under control,” said Noel, “So kudos to that.”

Noel cited Assistant Manager Moss as a substantive resource in overseeing the program in-house while Moss described the relatively new general assistance administrator, who she meets with daily, as extremely knowledgeable. And while the administrator position costs the town about the same dollar amount overall as that of contracting with PROP, the new staff member is, at 36 hours a week, employed nearly fulltime, compared to 24 hours a week by PROP.

Regarding past problems with the program, Noel emphasizes there was no substantial overpayment. “The biggest issue, the greatest deficiency, was that documents were insufficient” to make determinations to support or deny.

“We need to make sure that we fund all applicants that meet the criteria.”