LACONIA — Attorneys from New Hampshire Legal Assistance have challenged a recent change to the city's welfare guidelines clarifying that someone whose assistance was suspended for failing to comply with the requirements of the program must become compliant before reapplying for assistance.
The prior guidelines stipulated that, subject to two conditions, the welfare officer was not bound to accept an application from a recipient who has been disqualified for failing to accurately disclose all income and other resources, participate in the work program, search for gainful employment or seek other specified sources of public assistance.
The first condition provided that any applicant contesting their disqualification can request a hearing. The second, and more controversial condition, used to read "that a recipient who has been suspended for at least six months due to noncompliance may file a new application."
City officials who administer the welfare program expressed concern that recipients — and their advocates — were interpreting the second condition to entitle them to file a new application for assistance six months after being disqualified regardless of whether or not they have resolved the issues leading to their suspension. Consequently, they asked the council to strike the language from the guidelines, which the council, after some debate, did on March 10.
This week Daniel Feltes and Stepahnie Bray of the Concord Office of New Hampshire Legal Assistance wrote to Finance Director Donna Woodaman, who oversees the Welfare Department, and Suzanne McCormack, who administers general assistance, questioning the amended guidelines.
First, noting the reference to suspensions of six months, Feltes and Bray claim that state law neither contemplates nor permits suspensions of six months, adding that in 2012 the New Hampshire Supreme Court struck down such a provision in Manchester. Furthermore, they observed that the council rejected language that would have authorized the welfare officer to consider issues of non-compliance when weighing an application submitted six months or more after suspension. By refusing to accept applications for assistance without reviewing the applicants' circumstances, the attorneys charge this would deny applicants their rights of due process guaranteed by the federal and state constitutions.
City Manager Scott Myers said yesterday that city officials sought advice of legal counsel before recommending amendments to the welfare guidelines to the City Council. "I am very confident that what we have adopted satisfies both the spirit and the letter of the law," he said, acknowledging that New Hampshire Legal Assistance takes a different view.