Council won’t help fund addiction treatment project

The residential treatment center could still happen if organization raises funds on its own

After lengthy discussion and public comment, the Homer City Council voted not to help fund a program that seeks to bring a residential addiction treatment center for men to Homer.

Set Free Alaska approached the city a few months ago after having conferred with the local Southern Kenai Peninsula Opioid Task Force on what the town’s biggest gap in services was. It was identified to be residential treatment, so Set Free Alaska proposed a 16-bed facility within city limits for men. A potential location was the Refuge Chapel building on Pioneer Avenue.

Set Free Alaska asked the city council for matching funds to assist the Mat-Su Valley-based organization win a state grant for $1.5 million to help get the project off the ground. An ordinance to give Set Free about $175,000 that was originally in the city’s fund for the new police station had been postponed and re-written several times as the issue was debated.

The ordinance failed in a 3-2 vote at Monday’s regular council meeting, and Set Free will not get the funds from Homer. Council members Tom Stroozas, Shelly Erickson and Heath Smith all voted in favor of funding Set Free, while Rachel Lord and Caroline Venuti voted against the measure. Anything voted on by the city council needs a minimum of four votes to pass; thus the ordinance failed. Council member Donna Aderhold had an excused absence.

However, the project may still come to fruition. Set Free Alaska Executive Director Phillip Licht announced at the meeting that the faith-based organization has been awarded the state grant. Getting the grant was contingent on having the matching funds, so Set Free will have to raise the money another way, Licht said. If it doesn’t, Set Free will have to give the $1.5 million back to the state.

“The project begin date for the grant is … April 1,” Licht said. “… And we’re hoping to launch the program by August, so I think August is really our target for the raising of the additional money.”

Licht said that if Set Free isn’t able to raise the matching funds by that time, the organization would have to go back to the state and either revise the project proposal or give the money back.

Several people in their comments at the meeting said they felt the Homer community would be generous in terms of helping Set Free meet its goal.

“I don’t know the community as well, so I’m going to trust them and believe that we can pull it off,” Licht said.

If it comes to fruition, the residential treatment center would also offer outpatient services for both men and women. Whether to fund it with public dollars has been a great source of debate among the council.

In explaining her vote, Lord said her concerns were not based on the organization being faith-based, but rather on the precedent of giving public dollars to one social project over many others.

“For the most part, I am 100 percent in support of their project,” she said. “I am so thankful for it. I congratulate them on the funding from the state. I think that it’s a really great thing fundamentally for the community.”

She called for looking at making a policy for the city getting involved in social services.

“If we are in a position where we want to consider liberalizing the way that the city spends money, and if we want to include social service as one of our core functions, I would be first in line,” Lord said. “

That being said, I don’t see us living in that city, I don’t see us living in that state, I don’t see us living in that nation. That is not what I’m hearing from the people.”

Mayor Ken Castner also cautioned the council to be careful in how and where it gives out city money.

“To take the plunge into social services is a big gulp,” he said. “And it’s something that we have to be very strategic about, and maybe this was our invitation to examine that big gulp.”

Smith and Erickson both commented that they were in favor of the ordinance because the community is in great need of the service.

The ordinance would have also allocated $10,000 to the Homer Foundation for it to give out through its grant process to local organizations already tackling addiction issues.

At the end of the meeting, Licht told the council he appreciated their consideration and respects their decision.

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