When Lisa Triepke was going through her divorce in 2015, she applied for and got public assistance to pay her food and energy bills. While she was receiving the benefits, she also bought two houses, including a rental property in Florida.
Triepke said she asked the state to cancel the benefits after the divorce wrapped up in March 2016 and she got a $300,000 settlement from her ex-husband, Rod Triepke. But she said the state kept her on the rolls even though she no longer needed the help.
The assistance, in the form of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Low Income Energy Assistance Plan benefits (LIEAP), was to provide stability during her six-month divorce proceedings in 2015 and 2016. She said a confluence of events led to purchasing the homes while receiving public assistance.
“I’d never been through a divorce before,” Triepke said Tuesday. “I specifically tried to do it in an ethical and transparent manner.”
During her campaign for mayor, Triepke has criticized the city of Missoula for wasteful spending and a failure to prioritize, touting her budgeting experience during her divorce proceedings, when she said she learned to save and spend responsibly and “make ends meet.”
After the divorce settlement wrapped up in March 2016, Triepke's $300,000 settlement left her financially stable. She called the state benefits office to look into removing her and her family from both SNAP and LIEAP.
“As soon as I got the settlement, I called the office to see if I could get off,” Triepke said. “They advised me I had to wait for the annual renewal cycle.”
The LIEAP benefits run on a year-long basis, with applications open in the fall. Payments can go directly to Northwestern Energy, which Triepke said hers continued to do until the year ended in the fall of 2016.
The $150 a month she got in SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps, came directly to Triepke until August 2016, she recalled.
“I noted on the (benefits) application that it was short-term and just being used to bridge the gap,” she said. “It was short-term intended and it was short-term lived.”
Property records from Missoula and Santa Rosa counties show Triepke bought a home in Missoula in May 2016, and a rental home in Gulf Breeze, Florida, in June 2016. The properties cost $150,000 each.
The Missoula property was up for a lease renewal that spring, Triepke said, and the housing market was moving fast at that time, giving her a very small window to buy a home in town.
“We couldn’t wait until September, when I was off the assistance,” she said.
Triepke said that she and her ex-husband had long held rental properties as a way of saving money for their children, a practice she decided to continue after their marriage ended when she heard from a friend about a house being foreclosed on in Gulf Breeze.
Jon Ebelt, public information officer for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the two programs operate on different schedules: SNAP as a month-to-month service and LIEAP as an October through April seasonal benefit.
All LIEAP benefits cases automatically close in June, the end of the heating season, Ebelt said in an email, and SNAP benefits are reassessed monthly.
“Under normal circumstances, the cancellation of (SNAP) benefits occurs within a few weeks,” he wrote.
That means Triepke’s automatic LIEAP payments likely ended in June, when the program rolled over, though SNAP benefits should have been easier to end the next month after she received the divorce settlement.
“It provided (for) me, as a single mom with a low income, trying to transition into a house with my kids,” Triepke said. “All I can say is I tried to get off it.”