Days after a change in senior leadership at the Soldotna Senior Center, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted to make available full funding to the center for the upcoming fiscal year.
In all, the borough will make available to the center just over $134,000 for fiscal year 2024, which covers the 12-month period beginning on July 1. That’s a 25% increase over the previous year for Soldotna Area Senior Citizens, Inc., which the borough estimates serves about 18% of the borough’s nearly 14,700 seniors.
The borough makes money for senior centers available on a reimbursement basis, rather than as an upfront payment. This means the center can submit to the borough expenses that it would like to have reimbursed.
The Soldotna City Council in May voted to defund the center for the upcoming fiscal year, citing concerns from Soldotna seniors about management of the center’s endowment fund and behavior of executive staff. The city had originally budgeted $12,700 for the center and said it will revisit the issue next spring pending a financial audit of the center.
Then-Soldotna Senior Center Executive Director Loretta Spaulding told council members that she felt like she was being put “on trial” and that there was misinformation being spread about the center’s operations. Spaulding said in a statement shared to social media on June 2 that the center’s board of directors fired her as executive director.
Presenting on behalf of the Soldotna Senior Center to assembly members on Tuesday was Lisa Riley, who said she is the new senior center executive director as of Friday. Assembly member Tyson Cox, who represents Soldotna, said he asked the group to address the borough finance committee regarding borough funding.
Riley said she has only been on the job for one day, so would not be able to provide specific answers regarding center finances. The center this year was denied two grants from the State of Alaska, including one from the Nutrition, Transportation and Support Services grant program that is used for the senior center’s meals on wheels program.
An Oct. 6, 2022, letter upholding the denial of that grant from Alaska Department of Health Commissioner Adam Crum lists 11 ways the center’s grant application did not meet standards of the program. Riley told assembly members Tuesday that she is actively communicating with the state to see if those grant applications can be corrected.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Micciche confirmed with Riley that the center is still delivering some meals through its meals on wheels program, however, Riley said it is not immediately clear where the funding for that program is coming from.
The borough also provides funding to nine other senior centers, in Anchor Point, Cooper Landing, Homer, Kenai, Ninilchik, Seward, Seldovia, Sterling and Nikiski. In all, the borough will make available about $844,000 toward peninsula senior centers for the upcoming fiscal year.
Many of the seniors who voiced their concerns before the Soldotna City Council also attended Tuesday’s borough assembly meeting to recommend that funding be withheld from the center.
“Our finances were and continue to be in constant turmoil,” said Hanna Nowakowski, a former member of the center’s board of directors. “Unfortunately, I do believe that the inaction and inexperience for well-meaning current board members has contributed to the current struggles of (Soldotna Area Senior Citizens Inc.).“
Not all who spoke Tuesday about the Soldotna Senior Center, however, opposed funding.
Kristin Lambert, who said she has been involved in the Soldotna Senior Center for decades, acknowledged that the center has problems but said borough funds are needed to help solve those problems.
“The money from the borough is extremely important to try to get the senior center back on track,” she said. “It definitely has had problems for the last year and a half, two years now. … I really think that these things could be fixed and I think it would be important for us to keep operating.”
Many on Tuesday who said they oppose the borough funds for the center reiterated concerns they have about alleged mismanagement of funds. Micciche said multiple times expenses reimbursed by the borough are already monitored.
“We review every expenditure to make sure that all of the proper boxes are checked and that everything is accounted for accordingly prior to us issuing reimbursements,” Micciche said during Tuesday’s assembly meeting. “ … We will continue to employ that process to ensure that our needs are met as a funding agency prior to dispersing those funds.”
Micciche further directed those involved with the Soldotna Senior Center to work past the conflict to find solutions and “mend the fences,” and questioned why they would jeopardize financial support from the borough.
“Do you really want to challenge the portion that comes from the borough through community assistance to the senior senator, and jeopardize the little bit of funding that remains secure?” Micciche asked attendees. “Because you have lost significant funding that is important to many seniors — a very high proportion of seniors — in our community.”
Assembly members ultimately considered no changes to the borough’s budget addressing funding for the Soldotna Senior Center, and passed the final budget document.
Tuesday’s meetings can be streamed on the borough’s website at kpb.legistar.com.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.