When Soldotna City Council members voted last week to approve the city’s biennial operating budget, they also voted to defund the Soldotna Area Senior Citizens pending an audit of the senior center’s finances.
Up for consideration by council members during their May 24 meeting was Soldotna’s biennial budget, which covers the 24-month period that starts on July 1. Among the accounts funded by that budget is one for the Soldotna Area Senior Citizens, which runs the Soldotna Senior Center on Park Avenue.
As initially proposed, the City of Soldotna’s budget document described $12,700 per year for the next two fiscal years in funding for the center, or about $25,400. At least for the upcoming fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2023, to June 20, 2024, the city’s contribution to the center will be $0.
The unanimous vote by council members to defund the center came after multiple people expressed concerns at the meeting about how the center operates, alleging problems with how the endowment fund is being used and behavior of executive staff.
Mike Sweeney, who said he remembers when the Soldotna Senior Center was built and who has served on the senior center’s board of directors, said there have been concerns about how the center’s endowment is being used. He said he does not support the city funding the senior center for the upcoming fiscal year.
“My concern isn’t the endowment money but the way it’s run and also losing the money that I’ve been told that we’ve been losing (for) the last year and a half,” Sweeney said. “ … This community means a lot to me and I believe it means a lot to you people too. I think the senior center is in trouble.”
Jan Fena, a former director of the Soldotna Senior Center, told council members that she gets regular calls from Soldotna seniors expressing concerns about the status of services provided by the center, particularly as home-delivered meals and wellness checks of homebound seniors.
“When I’m receiving these calls I have great concern because seniors want to be able to come to that senior center, be able to socialize, have a meal and feel that they are welcome,” Fena said. “That’s really, really important to them. Losing grants and not having the funding in place to provide all of those services is a big detriment to our seniors and to our community.”
Council members unanimously agreed to defund the senior center for at least a year to allow time for a fiscal audit.
“I’m concerned about the senior center and where it’s at, where it’s going,” said Soldotna Vice Mayor Lisa Parker. “Some of the people who testified tonight I trust dearly. I trust their opinion and when they’re recommending that the city not put forth funding at this time, I trust their opinion.”
Council member Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings agreed.
“I feel that we have a terrible break in trust at what is going on at the senior center and I really feel that we do need an audited statement,” she said.
Before passing the budget later that evening, council members also amended the document to fund travel by city staff to a meeting in Washington, D.C., and to increase Soldotna City Clerk Johni Blankenship’s salary, among other administrative requests.
The city budget includes flat sales and property taxes and raises for Soldotna employees, and forecasts a bump in sales tax revenue.
Soldotna city council meetings and additional information about the city’s budget process can be found at soldotna.org.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.