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Council rejects $100,000 grant to senior center

Resolution seeking to open meetings with prayer spiked

Posted: June 11, 2014 - 4:55pm

Citing a tight budget and low reserves in unspent funds, the Homer City Council at its Monday night meeting did not introduce an ordinance appropriating $100,000 in matching funds to Homer Senior Citizens Inc. to pay for natural gas conversions at its facilities. 

Homer Senior Citizens has received a $100,000 state grant.

In another action, in a 4-2 vote, the council spiked a resolution by council member Bryan Zak directing that the council open its regular meetings with a prayer. 

On a motion by council member David Lewis, the council amended that resolution to change “prayer” to “a reflective moment of silence,” but then in a 5-1 vote, with only Zak voting yes, defeated the resolution outright.

The ordinance granting $100,000 to the senior center was on the consent agenda, but council member Barbara Howard pulled it. In the council process, ordinances are first introduced and then, if passed on introduction, come up for a public hearing, second reading and final action. It is rare for the council to stop an ordinance on introduction, but that’s what happened Monday night.

Homer Senior Citizens Executive Director Keren Kelley spoke in favor of the ordinance. She read from a letter noting the economic importance of seniors to Alaska. Citing state economist Eddie Hunsinger, she said seniors contribute $1.25 billion in investment income and services for seniors generate 13,000 Alaska jobs. 

Several seniors attended the meeting with Kelley, and while they did not speak, stood up to show their support for the ordinance.

In another letter to the council, noting that the council supports the Pratt Museum and South Peninsula Haven House, Kelley said “it is unconscionable that the city of Homer does not support the Senior Center financially.” 

Kelley also presented estimates for natural gas conversion for the center’s main complex and its four outlying residential complexes, a total of about $505,000.

Ray Kranich Jr. spoke against the ordinance. Also a senior, Kranich said, “I do not feel it’s the city’s place to give them this $100,000 for the conversion project.”

Kranich also noted that the city did not have an anticipated surplus of $300,000 for this budget year due to errors in accounting. City Manager Walt Wrede had told the council at its last meeting of this issue.

If the city were to give Homer Senior Citizens an appropriation, it should do so through a loan, Kranich said.

Lewis introduced the ordinance and spoke for it.

“We give to the Pratt, and here we are giving to the ones still left that are creating that history,” Lewis said. “I think this is a good investment of city funds. I know people disagree and don’t think this is something the city should be involved in. … This is just something I think we should go forward with.”

Zak noted that other cities in Alaska included funding for senior centers as a line item in their budgets. 

Council member Barbara Howard said she was concerned that the city would have to dip into its reserve fund to pay for the $100,000 grant and that if the city gave Homer Senior Citizens a grant, other nonprofits would ask for help.

“Our job first — you know what I say about sewer, water, police and fire. ... We are not there yet. We cannot afford to be lavish,” Howard said.

Council member Beau Burgess said he agreed with Howard.

“If we say yes to this, are we prepared to say yes to the next group?” he asked. “I don’t know that arriving at a certain age or a demographic should be an entitlement in itself.”

Burgess did say that he would be willing to support Kranich’s idea of a loan.

Council members Francie Roberts and Gus VanDyke also said they agreed with Howard.

“I just don’t think it’s the right time right now, especially with the city struggling with its own finances,” VanDyke said.

In a vote of 4-2, with Lewis and Zak voting yes, the ordinance failed on introduction.

In the prayer resolution, Zak said his intent was to start council meetings off with prayer that “evokes universal themes” such as “calling for a spirit of cooperation,” as the resolution’s introduction read. In the Committee of the Whole meeting he noted a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows legislative bodies to have prayers, even if the prayer references the beliefs of a specific religion.

The city attorney had recommended adding language to be included in the council handbook that would specify how prayers would be done. In a 4-3 vote, with Mayor Beth Wythe breaking the tie, the council approved such an amendment.

Howard said her main concern was how the resolution would be implemented. She didn’t want to impose an additional burden on the city clerk.

“I’m not in the business about adding to the clerk’s work,” she said.

Lewis said he objected to the resolution because of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from establishing a state religion as well as allowing for freedom of religion. He noted how in federal cemeteries, numerous religious symbols may be put on gravestones, including pagan symbols.

“If this is passed, I expect we need to honor all and not just the Judaeo-Christina ones,” Lewis said. “We need to do all or none. I prefer none.”

Burgess noted Zak’s good intentions, and lauded his idea of making the council a welcoming place operating in what’s best for the community, he said. An opening prayer might make people of faith feel more welcome, he said.

“I think there is a sub minority who might feel less invited to participate in a secular process if there’s any hint of a religion,” he said. “Some might feel this is a barrier to a secular democracy.”

Burgess also suggested that given his tendency to sometimes be wordy, the council might not want to see him deliver a prayer.

“Your mind has only begun to fathom the depths I would offer in a public prayer,” he said.

As a compromise, Lewis offered an amendment: strike the word “prayer” and replace it with “a reflective moment of silence.” That amendment passed 4-2, with Zak and VanDyke voting no.

Wythe asked how long “a reflective moment” would last, and Lewis suggested 30 seconds.

Zak said he if it made things easier for the clerk, he could accept a moment of silence. 

“Maybe in the future we have a way for a more reflective verbal way,” he said.

When it came down to voting on the motion as amended, though, the council spiked the entire resolution, and with only Zak in favor, voted 5-1 against it.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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