‘Between a rock and a hard place’: Portland’s big gamble on undocumented immigrants

Gov. Paul LePage and Portland City Councilor -- then mayor -- Nicholas Mavodones in 2011. (BDN file photo by Seth Koenig)

Gov. Paul LePage and Portland City Councilor — then mayor — Nicholas Mavodones in 2011. (BDN file photo by Seth Koenig)

The city of Portland and the LePage administration have seemingly always had an uneasy relationship. As far back as 2011, a member of Gov. Paul LePage’s cabinet said the Republican administration wouldn’t work with Portland — which has been ranked the most liberal city in Maine and consistently has eight Democrats and Greens among its nine city councilors — because the city was politically “against him.”

(That cabinet member resigned soon thereafter and LePage denied ever saying such a thing, in case you missed or forgot how that played out.)

But never have the stakes been perhaps as high for Portland as they are in the city’s dispute with LePage over general assistance aid for undocumented immigrants.

Gov. Paul LePage. (BDN file photo by Mario Moretto)

Gov. Paul LePage. (BDN file photo by Mario Moretto)

To recap, the governor has said his administration won’t allocate reimbursements for general assistance aid distributed by municipalities to undocumented immigrants. And beyond just not reimbursing for those beneficiaries in dispute, LePage has said cities who request reimbursements for the undocumented immigrants won’t get any reimbursements at all — even for those individuals whose qualifications for general assistance aid isn’t in question.

The governor argues that GA subsidies are being sapped by people who aren’t legally in this country, and that money should be spent on the thousands of legal Mainers who are battling poverty.

Since LePage’s edict, the administration and the trio of the Maine Municipal Association, Portland and Westbrook have traded lawsuits over whether the governor can deny municipalities reimbursements that way.

There is an ongoing legal debate over whether those lawsuits should play out in state or federal court.

So that’s how we got here, but things are now getting even more complicated for the city of Portland.

Portland Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

Portland Acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian. (BDN photo by Seth Koenig)

By the end of the month, the city will need to file its official request with the state for reimbursements for June expenses, the first such incremental request the city will make since the governor’s stated rule barring undocumented immigrants from benefiting.

And there’s no easy answer for what the city should do. Every possible action the city takes at this point has a significant possible downside.

Those options were outlined for the City Council by acting City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian during a workshop tonight at City Hall. Mayor Michael Brennan summed things up this way: “We’re kind of caught between a proverbial rock and a hard place.”

Option One: Wait until the lawsuit plays out before filing reimbursement requests with the state.

  • Upside: The city would know for sure which beneficiaries it could claim for state reimbursements, because the court would have said without question the governor is — or isn’t — within his rights to withhold subsidies as punishment for dispersing money to undocumented immigrants.
  • Downside: There’s no way the court case is resolved by the deadline to file requests for reimbursements, so even if Portland and its partners claim victory in court, the state could rightly just point out that the city did not request any reimbursements by the deadline and deny all funding based on that. For what it’s worth, Hill-Christian and city Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta basically ruled out this option for that reason.

Option Two: File a request for reimbursements for all GA aid recipients, even undocumented immigrants, in conflict with LePage’s rule.

  • Upside: The city would maintain its legal claim for the full reimbursement, so if Portland and its partners win a court ruling, they could seek back payment for all the funding they believe was owed to them for the time frame in question. Over the course of the fiscal year, the city is budgeted to distribute about $10.7 million in GA aid, with the state — at least based on the previous rules that allowed for dispersal to undocumented immigrants — to reimburse more than $8.6 million of that. Included in that $10.7 million total is about $3.6 million to be distributed to individuals the state now deems to be ineligible. If the city wins in court and gets all of its reimbursements by the start of the next fiscal year, it wouldn’t be expected to harm the city’s bond rating. Under the “mixed blessing” category, Portland’s continuation of distributing GA payments to undocumented immigrants, while other cities stop doing so, could trigger a migration of those individuals into Portland, Hill-Christian said. The good news is, those individuals are considered welcomed and valued members of the Portland community, and once they get established, they become entrepreneurs and contribute to the economy. “I do think it’s odd that the governor says, ‘We’re open for business,’ and … just from an economic development standpoint, a lot of these individuals are highly skilled, highly educated individuals,” said City Councilor Ed Suslovic after tonight’s meeting. “These are folks who, given some temporary assistance when they get here to get their feet under them, provide huge opportunities for a state that has some serious demographic issues. … We should be recruiting them.” The bad news is, at least in the initial stretch, they’d be adding to the city’s GA load.
  • Downside: By defiantly requesting reimbursements for undocumented immigrants despite LePage’s demands, the city is perhaps hoping the governor blinks first. LePage isn’t known for backing down from a challenge, and city attorneys acknowledge that odds are good the state will withhold most — if not all — GA reimbursements under this scenario. Since Brennan and other city officials have made it clear they plan to keep dispersing aid to undocumented immigrants, and the June distributions have already been made, this would mean Portland is shouldering its entire GA budget on its own, at least until such time that the lawsuit is finished (assuming the city wins). That means dipping into the general fund or cannibalizing other parts of the budget to the tune of nearly $300,000 per month in the meantime. If the court ultimately rules in LePage’s favor and leaves Portland on the hook for all GA distributions in the city going into the future, it would be worth a 4.5 percent increase to the local property tax rate — a jump of $182 in annual taxes on a home assessed to be worth $200,000, for instance. Furthermore, financial adviser Joseph Cuetara told the council tonight if the city dipped into the fund balance to cover a huge increase in GA payments, and did not get reimbursed for those payments by the start of the next fiscal year or have some other plan to offset them, it would almost certainly cause bond rating agencies to give Portland a “negative” outlook or even downgrade the city’s bond rating from AA1 to AA2 or AA-. Because of Portland’s massive share of the state’s economy — the Greater Portland metropolitan area accounts for more than half of the Maine economy — that could have a ripple effect of harming the bond ratings of neighboring communities or even the entire state, Cuetara suggested. “The state is putting everybody’s bond ratings at risk by putting us in this position,” City Councilor David Marshall said during the workshop.

Option Three: File a request for reimbursements for only GA aid recipients who are not undocumented immigrants, in partial compliance with LePage’s rule.

  • Upside: The state would, in theory, reimburse the city for those undisputed GA recipients while the lawsuit plays out, so Portland would not have to go it completely alone as it distributes GA funding in the short term.
  • Downside: By only requesting reimbursements for GA recipients who are not undocumented immigrants, the city risks forfeiting any future reimbursements for those undocumented immigrants. Portland could win its court case, but the state could still deny funding for previous GA payments to the disputed recipients on the grounds that, well, the city never technically asked for it. This also leaves the city shouldering the burden in the short term of covering all of its own GA payments to undocumented immigrants, thus continuing to squeeze the monthly budget, albeit less severely. This also places frontline city Department of Health and Human Services workers in the positions of being experts in immigration policy, as it will be those individuals who will be responsible for ensuring that none of the city’s GA recipients are undocumented immigrants. Julie Sullivan, the city’s acting DHHS director, said it’s not always clear cut who has proper documentation and who doesn’t: “It’s unbelievably complex, and our staff has had no training.” She added that if a state audit of the city’s reimbursement request — which, given the circumstances, would be likely — found errors and even unintentional requests for funding for undocumented immigrants, the state has threatened to withhold all reimbursements. So even if the city tries to partially comply, it could end up in the same place financially as if it acting in total defiance of the administration.

Option Four: Fully comply with LePage’s rule and, from hereon out at least, refuse do distribute general assistance aid to undocumented immigrants.

  • Upside: The city would no longer be at odds with the administration — at least from a bookkeeping standpoint — and would be getting reimbursements that cover the city’s GA payments, perhaps preventing the city from having to make any dramatic budget changes during the year that threaten its bond ratings or property tax rates.
  • Downside: As in the above scenario, the city would be forfeiting any right to the disputed state funding, no matter how the lawsuit plays out. In fact, Portland’s position in that lawsuit could be undermined by the fact that the city isn’t in practice doing what it argues in court it’s legally obligated to do. Plus, by refusing to distribute aid to individuals who for years received it, West-Chuhta told the city councilors they open themselves up to lawsuits by GA recipients whose statuses were disputed, and it could be said that Portland is going through a serious case of lawsuit fatigue after a string of bruising cases dating back to the Occupy Maine suit more than two years ago. “What was clear to me was that the governor’s edict really places municipalities in Maine in a no-win situation,” said Suslovic. “In order to comply with the governor’s rule, we place ourselves in jeopardy of lawsuits.” Perhaps most significantly, refusing aid to those individuals conflicts with the ethos of Mayor Michael Brennan and almost all of the city’s publicly elected officials, meaning this is an unlikely course of action for the city.
Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic. (BDN file photo by Seth Koenig)

Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic. (BDN file photo by Seth Koenig)

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.