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NH Supreme Court: Manchester welfare rules are wrong

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 28. 2012 10:17PM

MANCHESTER - The City of Manchester's welfare department was wrong when it denied a couple all public assistance for six months after they tried to hide that they had a car, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The court said city guidelines, which provide for a six-month suspension of benefits in cases of misrepresentation, conflicts with state law that does not provide for a blanket, six-month suspension. The decision reverses a ruling issued by Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Brown.

Kenneth Bond and Deborah Thibault, in applying for rental assistance, told welfare officials that their car was broken down even though a security officer saw them drive to the office in it. As a result, their $140 weekly rental assistance was revoked for six months.

Welfare Commissioner Paul Martineau said his department will abide by the ruling but believes legislators need to change the law to allow for a six-month suspension when someone lies in applying for benefits. He said there were not a lot of cases where the lengthy suspension was imposed because applicants are given the opportunity to amend and correct the application.

Attorney Elliott Berry, of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Kenneth Bond and Deborah Thibault, disagreed with Martineau's assessment. He said through the discovery process it was revealed there were about 100 cases over the past three years where the welfare office imposed a six-month suspension of benefits.

'It was the easiest method they had of getting rid of people requesting assistance,' Berry said.

He said he is gratified the court saw how clearly Manchester's guidelines conflict with state law and 'upheld the humanitarian purpose of this ancient statute.'

Berry said his agency represents people in all 235 municipalities in the state and has never seen anything as draconian as the 6-month disqualification in Manchester.

'The fact their budget could be decreasing and the salaries increasing at the time when more people have been suffering since the Great Depression is insanity,' he said.

In 2012, the welfare agency spent 60 percent of its budget, or $670,000, on salaries; 29 percent went for assistance, including payments for homeless shelters, food, utilities and rent, according to figures Martineau supplied in August to city officials. Salary costs are expected to rise to 65 percent for 2013.

Martineau has said he saved the city $1.6 million over the 10 years he's been welfare commissioner.

Berry said that, to receive city welfare, people have to be 'utterly destitute,' exhausted all public and private sources of funding, and fill out an eight-page application. The information requested in the application, he said, is so 'extraordinarily intrusive' that people feel they can't tell welfare officials anything.'

If a relative covers the cost for something - even if it is something the city would never pay for - that amount is deducted from any benefit they would have received, Berry said. 'I can't tell you the number of ingenious ways they come up with not to pay,' he said.

Bond and Thibault, he said, did not go to the welfare office to ask for gas money; they went there for help in basic living expenses.

City Solicitor Peter R. Chiesa, who argued the case for the city, said the couple's car is an indicator that they had more resources than they were admitting since a vehicle has to be registered and insured. And, he said, they had asked for gas money on another occasion.

Welfare, he said, is last resort for people who have no money.

According to the court decision, Bond and Thibault applied for general assistance in January 2010. On Feb. 24, 2010, the city approved $140 a week in rental assistance. On March 18, 2010, the assistance was suspended for seven days because the couple failed to provide certain documentation, including information pertaining to a $30 purchase of gas.

The suspension was lifted a week later even though they were unable to 'show compliance with the $30 purchase of vehicle gas that (they) stated (they) had previously purchased through an alternate financial resource.'

They received rental assistance through April 8, but on April 9 the city revoked it and denied them assistance for six months because they misrepresented information related to their car, according to the decision.

Welfare officials, in revoking the voucher, told the couple they did not ask for gas that day or the previous week even though in a March 15 email their attorney said he believed there were legitimate reasons for gasoline assistance. On March 25, the city gave them an allowance for five gallons of gas but had not seen the car since that date or been able to look at mileage or the amount of gas in it.

'Today you stated you did not drive your car here. You have stated that it broke down three or four days ago,' city welfare officials told them in a letter revoking the rental assistance.

That became problematic for the couple since a city security officer saw them get out of their vehicle when they arrived that day for their appointment, according to the court record.

The city said the couple, in providing the misinformation, prevented officials from being able to check the fuel gauge or the odometer, which would give an indication of whether they had other financial resources to put gas in the car. That would require the couple to provide receipts. The city also said the couple noted on their financial update sheets for the three prior weeks that they had not received 'any income/money/resources since (their) prior appointment.'

Misrepresentation/omission of information by a client is grounds for denial or termination of all city assistance for up to six months and may result in prosecution, according to the city's guidelines.

Berry said people are so beaten down by the welfare process that they are fearful to tell welfare that a relative gave them $10 to help with gas or food.

'They feel too beaten down, hopeless and humiliated and can't fight back and two people did and I think the public is a lot better off because of it,' said Berry.

The six-month suspension guideline, he said, was in effect in Manchester for far too long but his office had not challenged it because they had not found anyone who would stand up to the welfare office until Bond and Thibault.

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