Rise in welfare cases stretches town budgets

When Amherst welfare officer Sharon Frydlo submitted her 2009 budget proposal to town officials, she asked for a $4,000 increase over last year.

“Our clientele has increased greatly,” Frydlo said, adding that she anticipates that spending in the current budget year, which began July 1 and ends June 30, will surpass the $23,000 she’s requesting.

Across the region and state, welfare officers are facing similar scenarios.

In Nashua, for example, welfare officer Bob Mack said his office is seeing about 100 clients every week.

“We’re 18 percent higher now than we were last year,” Mack said. “We’re seeing some new faces that we hadn’t seen before.”

Unlike smaller communities, however, Mack said he isn’t worried about going over his budget.

Last year, he underspent. This year, he requested the same amount budgeted as last year as insurance in the event of climbing applications.

Still, Mack understands that the economy could worsen, forcing more residents to seek help.

“It depends on what the next few months bring,” he said.

Frydlo said she has been taking about four calls a week since the middle of last year, a surprising number for an affluent town with few rental units or low-income homes.

Indeed, during the first five months of the current budget year, Frydlo said, she spent $10,326, more than half of her $19,000 budget. She said if requests continue to rise, the town would be facing a deficit.

“It’s very unusual for Amherst,” said Frydlo, who wears several hats at Town Hall, including executive assistant to the town administrator and board of selectmen.

Statewide, “applications are skyrocketing,” said Daniel Feltes, a staff attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance. The statewide organization provides legal assistance to residents relying on public assistance and the so-called working poor, as well as the elderly, no matter their financial situation.

Feltes said local communities are obligated under state law to help any person in town who’s unable to provide food and shelter for him or herself. The law stipulates that a person needn’t have a “residence” in the community to qualify.

The law also ensures that the needy person will receive help even if it means the local government must borrow money or incur debt in the process.

Provisions are basic: A homeless person, for example, won’t be set up in an apartment. However, a homeowner who qualifies may receive mortgage assistance.

“Our goal is to keep them from danger, safe, fed, warm,” Hollis Town Administrator Troy Brown said. “The money isn’t to continue or keep them in a lifestyle.”

In Amherst, officials approved a welfare budget of $19,000 last year, and also budgeted $39,832 to be distributed to area human-services agencies. This year, the funding for human service agencies has been broken into a separate warrant article.

Portsmouth welfare director Keith Bates, president of the New Hampshire Local Welfare Administrators Association, said his organization doesn’t keep a database, although it collects some numbers around the state.

The City of Concord welfare officer, for example, will be asking the local government to increase next year’s general assistance budget from $388,000 to $500,000, Bates said.

He said Keene budgeted $600,000 for the current fiscal year, but that it has already spent half of that.

“We’re busy. We’re seeing people we hadn’t seen before,” Bates said of requests being made to his Portsmouth office.

Bates said a growing number of calls are coming from the working poor, people with jobs who don’t earn enough to cover the basics.

Ann Webb, the Brookline welfare officer, who’s in her first year on the job, said welfare applications are increasing. She said the town welfare office helped 20 families in 2007 and 22 families last year.

Late last year, Webb told the board of selectmen that she was beginning to see residents who had never before applied for public assistance, including a growing number of families living in big, expensive houses who were unable to buy food for their children.

The town budgeted $15,000 for welfare last year and spent $28,569.

Webb is asking the town to put aside $23,000 to provide town welfare in 2009.

“The board of selectmen hoped that was an oddity,” Webb said, noting that officials underestimated welfare spending for two consecutive years.

She said the welfare budget, which is based on the calendar year, has taken a hit in recent months.

“I’m definitely seeing a change,” she said.

In response, Webb continued, community volunteers have begun picking up the slack.

“We had a huge volunteer effort over the holidays,” she said.

Meanwhile, Webb has set up an account at the local T.D. Banknorth branch under “Ann Webb/Welfare Program” that allows residents to make donations. Funds from this account will be used to supplement welfare aid for needy families and individuals.

In Hollis, Brown said officials wouldn’t increase the town’s welfare budget, which is now at $10,000.

Including spending itemized under the heading of health and human services, the town commits an additional $15,000 to support area food pantries, the American Red Cross and other service agencies in Greater Nashua.

“We haven’t seen a spike due to the economy,” Brown said, adding that the town provided public assistance to six families and individuals in 2008.

“There aren’t a lot of rental properties in town. Most are homeowners.”

Brown said welfare applicants are typically dealing with layoffs, medical expenses or divorce, situations that can quickly drain a savings account or other financial resources.

For a backup, the town supports volunteer efforts such as the Shepherd’s Fund, a town-based program that has provided cars and other help to neighbors in need, Brown said.

“The last stop is really here,” he said. “You can only rely on friends, neighbors, churches, family for so long. Eventually, people do come to the town seeking assistance.”

In Bedford, finance director Crystal Dionne said the town has budgeted $15,000 for next year’s welfare budget, the same amount it has budgeted for at least three years.

Dionne said the town has had 12 to 15 cases a year, with a slight increase last year.
“Maybe in 2008, I had two or three more than I had before,” she said.

Marian Castenho, the Milford welfare director, said her office helped 161 families and individuals last year, spending $132,604.

For 2009, Castenho is asking the town to commit $169,639.

“It’s been a very busy office,” she said. “The biggest factor is the high cost of housing, the lack of subsidized housing. It has a huge impact.”

In Mont Vernon, a town of about 2,000, welfare officer Rich Masters said the deepening recession is just beginning to affect residents.

“Mont Vernon is a fair amount different from other towns, very rural, low density, in general pretty well off,” Masters said.

He said last year, the town budgeted $9,000 for general assistance and spent $13,300. This year, he’s recommending the selectmen budget $13,300.

“We haven’t seen until recently any effects of the economic meltdown,” Masters said. “Just now we’re getting some requests from folks affected. It’s a bit of a delay. They’ve exhausted their resources and need help with the mortgage or food.”

And Masters, who has been receiving two applications a month, is growing concerned.
“Without a doubt,” he said. “I was sworn in in May, and in September, things started hitting the fan.”
Hattie Bernstein can be reached at
673-3100, ext. 24, or hbernstein@
cabinet.com.