Legality of city funding Christian-based treatment center called into question

Feb 26, 2019

Credit Image Courtesy of the City of Homer

There has been some contention surrounding a proposed residential drug treatment center in Homer. Set Free Alaska, a Christian-based organization, wants to utilize a state grant and some matching funds from the city to start the treatment center downtown.

However, some on the Homer City Council question whether the money the city has in mind could be legally spent on the project.   

During the Homer City Council’s meeting Monday, there was a lot of passionate testimony about whether the city should award Set Free, which is based near Palmer, hundreds of thousands of dollars  to help start a men’s residential treatment center in the basement of the Refuge Chapel downtown.  

Most everyone agreed that Homer needs treatment services, but some questioned whether Set Free, being a Christian-based program, should be the one to fill that need.

However, council members focused more on the specific pot of money it would use to support the $2.7 million project.

“There are really two issues: One is do we use city funds for this project and is it actually legal for us to use city funds for this project?” council member Donna Aderhold said.

The council considered three versions of an ordinance, all of which would award Set Free various amounts of funding.

One of the measures would have given Homer’s opioid task force some of that money, but the version the council chose, if passed, would give Set Free about $175,000 and provide about $10,000 in grant funding local organizations focused on addiction and treatment could apply for.

The state gave the city most of that money through a community assistance program. That funding comes with stipulations, the biggest being that community assistance funding should be spent on projects or services open to the entire community.

Aderhold and others like council member Caroline Venuti worry the city could wind up in legal hot water if it were to give money to a religious program.

“The people that called me said, ‘do you think that you don’t have the ACLU sitting out there waiting to see what your decision is going to be on this?’ I believe we need to be very, very cautious or we are going to end up getting sued,” Venuti cautioned.

Set Free has addressed its religious affiliation several times. Set Free said it’s an accredited program and that it serves all people in the same way.

Set Free has applied for a $1.5 million grant from the state to help launch the Homer facility. Funding from the city is contingent upon Set Free receiving that grant.

Council member Heath Smith said he’s comfortable with the state vetting the program through its grant application.

“If there was a legal issue, I don’t think it’s going to pass the litmus test with the state. The state will not grant $1.5 million to an organization that will be in violation of law or that would violate the very community assistance they are providing to communities,” Smith argued. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Aderhold and Venuti say they had asked for Set Free’s grant application themselves to see exactly how the city’s money would be spent. KBBI reached out to Set Free about its grant application, but we did not hear back in time for this story.

The council members say Set Free declined to provide the application, citing the competitive grant process.

“The standards and stipulations placed on that grant may not be the same standards that are placed on a municipality,” Aderhold said, responding to Smith’s comments. “To me, they are potentially different and we do need a legal opinion on the use of community assistance funds for this purpose.”

The council will receive legal guidance from the city attorney before it holds a final public hearing and vote on the issue at its next regular meeting on March 11.