The Art of Welfare: Managing Municipal Welfare

By Kimberly A. Hallquist, Esq.

It should come as no surprise that with news of sudden layoffs, budget cutbacks, higher fuel prices and an uncertain economy there is an increasing need for local welfare assistance. Municipalities that have seen little activity in their welfare offices are seeing larger numbers of applicants coming in with a variety of needs. For welfare administrators accustomed to receiving only a few applications each year, a sudden influx of applicants can be daunting to say the least. Even seasoned welfare administrators are feeling the stress. At the same time, municipal budget committees and boards of selectmen are advocating for fiscal restraint in an attempt to control increasing tax rates.

With advanced planning, knowledge, flexibility and patience, municipal welfare programs will be managed in a way that will benefit all. Strategies can be adopted by local welfare officials to address the needs of those who cannot help themselves while also managing welfare budgets in a prudent manner. This article will touch upon some of those strategies by discussing the basic steps involved with processing an application for assistance. Municipal welfare is a vast and complex topic. New Hampshire Local Government Center (LGC) strongly urges local welfare officials to seek additional advice when dealing with complex welfare applications; additional resources are noted at the conclusion of this article.

The Fundamental Concept
The basic premise of municipal welfare is that the municipality must provide for those who are unable to provide for themselves: “Whenever a person in any town is poor and unable to support himself, he shall be relieved and maintained by the overseers of public welfare of such town, whether or not he has a residence there." RSA 165:1.

The often formidable task is determining whether the person is indeed poor and unable to support himself or herself or, instead, if it is a case of poor choices in spending or an unwillingness to support himself or herself. Then, if the person does meet the statutory requirements and is eligible for assistance from the municipality, in what form will that assistance be provided? Certainly the municipality is not required to provide whatever assistance the applicant requests? Answering these questions is seldom easy. That’s why the attorneys at the Local Government Center refer to this process as the art of welfare.

Welfare administrators work in an atmosphere that is challenging and emotional. They work with individuals who are experiencing extremely stressful situations: loss of a job, loss of housing, threat of utility disconnection to name a few. The welfare administrator must work with applicants in a humane and respectful manner in this emotionally-charged atmosphere while at the same time verifying the information in the application; determining whether the person is eligible for assistance; deciding what assistance will be offered by the town; establishing conditions for continued assistance; and monitoring to ensure compliance. These decisions must be made fairly and without regard to the balance remaining in the welfare budget. If a person is eligible for assistance because he or she is found to be “poor and unable to support himself [or herself]" then he or she must be assisted by the town, even if the original budget for welfare has been exhausted. The welfare administrator should keep the governing body aware of the balance in the welfare budget, so that they can take timely action to transfer additional appropriations into the welfare budget to avoid overspending.

Welfare Guidelines
This is a critical first step. Having written welfare guidelines, as adopted by the governing body, is not only a requirement of the law (RSA 165:1, II), but also provide the welfare administrator with a plan of how to work through each request for assistance. In this way, the welfare administrator can approach each application for assistance in an organized manner that will allow for verification of the information given by the applicant before assistance is given. The guidelines set out the rules that applicants must follow in order to receive assistance. An important component of the guidelines is the budget worksheet, which includes the list of allowable expenses and the amount the municipality will pay for each. For example, how much will the municipality pay for housing a family of four? This should be the amount that is reasonable for the area, not the lowest amount that the municipality would like to pay. It is very important that welfare guidelines are reviewed periodically and updated to reflect changes in the costs of rent, utilities, food and other necessities, in the particular area.

The Application
Once someone walks into the office and requests assistance, he or she should be handed an application and instructed to fill it out. If the person needs help filling out the application, staff should offer to guide them through the process. Even if the welfare administrator thinks that the person is probably not going to get assistance, for whatever reason, the person should be encouraged to fill out an application. It is appropriate at this point to determine whether there is an immediate need, such as current homelessness, pending electricity service disconnection or need for medication. If there is an immediate need, the welfare administrator should assist only to the extent needed to address that urgent need, and then continue to process the application in the regular manner.

The application should include a Release of Information form that will allow the welfare administrator to gather information concerning the applicant. A release of information is the written authorization by the applicant giving permission to various people (landlord, employer, utility companies) to release information about him or her. Without a release, it will generally be impossible to verify the information given by the applicant. It is very important to understand that all information related to the application for assistance must remain confidential. RSA 165:2-c. Municipal officials should be careful not to divulge information identifying current or former applicants for assistance except in some very limited circumstances related to verifying applications and providing assistance.

Determination Process
Once the completed application is submitted, the welfare administrator can begin the determination process—is this person eligible for assistance or not? In order to answer this question, two steps must be taken: (1) verification of the information in the application and (2) comparing income and assets against the allowable expenses in the budget worksheet.

In order to verify the information given, the applicant should be required to submit verification of wages, rent and other information by bringing in pay stubs, current bills and rent receipts. With this documentation in hand, the welfare administrator can verify that the information supplied is accurate. Verification of information will reduce the instances of fraud. Once verified as accurate and complete, it can be entered into the budget worksheet. A completed budget worksheet allows the welfare administrator to determine whether the applicant is eligible or not. If available assets and income exceed the allowable expenses, the applicant is not eligible for assistance. For example, an applicant with $100 in a savings account (available asset) and $1,200 in monthly wages (income) will be not be eligible for assistance if the municipality’s allowable monthly expenses do not exceed $1,300 per month.

It is a difficult discussion to have with an applicant when the worksheet computation results in assets exceeding expenses and the applicant is behind on rent and has no money to purchase food. This may be the result of the applicant spending his or her money on items that are not considered allowable expenses to the town, such as cable television, Internet services, long distance phone bills and credit card payments, among others. While an applicant may choose to spend his or her resources on these items, they are not basic necessities that the municipality is responsible for paying. On the other hand, an unusual expense that causes an applicant to be temporarily unable to pay rent may be allowed by the welfare administrator even when the expense is not specifically listed on the budget worksheet. Consider the case of an applicant who spends money renting a moving truck to move to an apartment that is cheaper and that is closer to work. Can or should the welfare administrator consider these expenses allowable? Absolutely! Once again, remember that this is the art of welfare.

There may be situations where a person’s income exceeds the allowable expenses in the guidelines, but the welfare administrator decides to assist the person anyway. This might be a very prudent decision when short-term help allows a person to keep his or her job and return to financial stability, rather than waiting until the person loses everything and the expense to the municipality is greater both in time on assistance and the amount of assistance needed.

A note on the issue of residency: residency is irrelevant for purposes of determining eligiblity. If someone asks for assistance, the welfare administrator must process the request regardless of whether the applicant is a resident. Residency may be relevant for purposes of reimbursement from the town of residence for the costs of providing assistance, but it should not enter into the decision-making process in determining eligibility.

The decision to deny or grant the request for assistance must be provided to the applicant in the form of a written notice of decision, including any conditions imposed on receipt of assistance, and must include the applicant’s right to appeal the decision.

Form of Assistance
A municipality may not limit assistance in time, amount of money or residential status. Thus, statements like: “our policy is to provide assistance for a maximum of three months and then you can’t have any more help," or “once we spend $1,000, you’re unable to receive further help from the town" or “we won’t help you because you don’t live in town" are not appropriate and should be avoided.

If the applicant is found eligible for assistance, the next step is to determine the form of the assistance. For example, let’s look at housing. If the applicant is currently in an apartment or house, the question is whether that housing situation is one that the municipality will support or if alternative housing will be offered. Alternate housing might be appropriate if the rent exceeds the allowable amount in the town’s guidelines. If the rent is within the allowable expenses as stated in the guidelines, the municipality should approve, and pay, that amount to the landlord. If the rent exceeds the guidelines, the welfare administrator must then consider whether it makes sense to have the person move to less expensive housing or if maintaining the current housing situation is best. Factors to be considered include moving expenses, availability of other housing, the applicant’s desire to remain in their home, fees and deposits for new housing and how long the person is expected to need town assistance.

The issue of back rent or past due utilities is often a troublesome area for welfare administrators. While the law does not require the payment of back rent or utilities, it does require that eligible persons “shall be relieved and maintained by the overseers of public welfare of such town." If the only way to keep a person in a housing unit is to pay the back rent, and the welfare administrator determines that the housing situation is the most appropriate one, then the municipality may pay back rent. On the other hand, the welfare administrator may find that the landlord will agree to a payment plan with the tenant for the back rent while the municipality pays the current rent. It is important to note that the landlord should not be promised payment of rent for any specific period of time. While the municipality may pay one month, if the applicant does not continue to be eligible for assistance, or is disqualified for noncompliance, the municipality will not be obligated to make future rent payments. It is a month-to-month proposition. Additionally, assistance should not be made in the form of cash to the recipient. Instead, vouchers are issued or payments are made by the municipality directly to the landlord, utility, grocery store or other vendor.

Continuing Assistance
If an applicant is found to be eligible for assistance, it is strongly suggested that the welfare administrator impose conditions on the recipient’s continued receipt of assistance. This will help to ensure that the recipient will take the steps necessary to return to a position where welfare assistance from the municipality will no longer be needed. Conditions might include looking for employment, applying for all state and federal assistance programs or participating in a municipal work program. A recipient who fails to satisfy the conditions may be disqualified from receiving assistance for a period of time or until the conditions are satisfied.

A requirement that the assisted person meet with the welfare administrator periodically will allow for updates of the financial status to determine whether the person continues to be eligible for assistance. So long as the need exceeds the available assets and income, the person continues to be eligible for assistance and the municipality is obligated to provide that assistance.

Recovery of Assistance Given
Recovery is not an element to be considered during the eligibility determination process. Whether the municipality will ever be repaid for the assistance given is not relevant to whether a person is eligible for assistance. Think of it as a “render-aid-first/ask-questions-later" proposition. That being said, the law does allow for recovery in some instances.

First, the assisted person is required to repay the municipality should he or she return to income status and can repay without financial hardship. RSA 165:20-b. The municipality may also recover from legally-liable relatives of the assisted person including the father, mother, stepfather, stepmother, son, daughter, husband or wife if the legally liable relative has the financial means. RSA 165:19. Other recovery options include placing a lien on the property of the assisted person (RSA 165:28), recovery from the town of residence (RSA 165:20) and liens placed against outstanding claims or lawsuits that the assisted person may have, or an expectancy under a will or estate being probated (RSA 165:28-a). Consult with local legal counsel for the procedures that must be followed in order to recover welfare assistance using any of these options.

Municipal welfare is a complex and often difficult area for municipal officials to understand and administer. Welfare administrators are encouraged to seek advice when they are unsure how to deal with an application. Assistance is available from LGC’s legal services attorneys, from membership in the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association and from local legal counsel. LGC publications including The Art of Welfare Administration and Model Local Welfare Guidelines may also prove to be extremely helpful.

Successful management of municipal welfare programs requires preparation, knowledge, flexibility and patience. Both taxpayers and welfare recipients are best served when these elements are present in the municipality’s welfare program.

Kimberly A. Hallquist is Staff Attorney with LGC’s Legal Services and Government Affairs Department. LGC’s legal services attorneys are available to answer questions about this and other matters of interest to local officials.

Article Topics: