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Resource center in line for $22,000 social service grant

ASHLAND — In a rare reversal of fortune, the City Council has rescinded a controversial decision chopping a social service grant to the Ashland Community Resource Center operated by Options for Housing Residents of Ashland.

The ACRC is a program providing support for families in danger of homelessness, and it offers job counseling and assistance with paperwork to access further resources in the Ashland area.

The council in deciding its annual social service grants had been asked to award the organization $40,000 by the city’s Housing and Human Services Commission, citing the numbers of people helped in finding jobs and housing.

But when it came time to award the grant on April 18, questions arose about an OHRA board member who also serves on the commission being present for the recommendation, as well as a lack of a strategic plan for the organization.

The commissioner, Sharon Harris, is a volunteer in both capacities and receives no financial benefit.

The conflict concern, along with a desire to give greater funding to the St. Vincent DePaul organization, which serves a similar population, caused the council to award $4,000 rather than $40,000.

“The cut to the grant was too severe," said Councilor Stefani Seffinger at the Tuesday meeting in making the motion to rescind the vote that cut their grant. "They have worked with a consultant to improve record keeping, increased services for job readiness, and they have moved clients to make appointments for services cutting down on the resource center as a place to hang out. I believe they should be encouraged. For this reason, I recommend increasing their allotment to $22,000.”

Testifying before the council, OHRA Executive Director Leigh Madsen pleaded with the council to restore the grant in order to assist the ACRC which, he said, has grown its donor base and cut its request to the city of Ashland with each request. “ACRC is the place to go for positive change. We like to say the ACRC is a one-stop (shop) for social services.”

OHRA board member Kate Hartzell asked the council to set aside its previous notions regarding the alleged conflict. “If the person is a volunteer, they would be exempt,” Hartzell said while admonishing the council to reconsider. “I apologize to that volunteer in public for the damage to her reputation.”

Councilor Dennis Slattery agreed that, while the alleged conflict was more one of appearance, it shouldn’t have happened. He also agreed that the grant money be given to OHRA for the Resource Center. “This is a good person doing hard work in the community and should have been given the benefit of the doubt. It’s a huge penalty.”

“Yes, I have a problem with how the process was handled,” said Councilor Greg Lemhouse. “I’m not against a re-allocation, but that means taking away from other agencies that do good work. ... I haven’t received emails or phone calls about the issues, what I have received is bullying.” The councilor said he expects to be able to ask questions and make decisions without receiving hostility from the community.

Councilor Rich Rosenthal had similar concerns about the council reversing itself based on public comment and protest. “If the council does not take the advice of a city commission and there’s an outcry, we’re going to go back and take a look at this again?” Rosenthal said. “I have real concerns about this process.”

Mayor John Stromberg stepped in and broke a 3-3 tie to restore the funding. “I think it is a very complex situation, but we’re a community and we need to be able to work through these situations,” he said. Stromberg followed up with an endorsement of improvements to the Resource Center. “OHRA has done good work in this community and it’s appreciated.”

Exactly how the city will re-allocate funds has yet to be determined. The council directed staff to go through the entire $137,000 social service grant budget and look for ways to re-allocate to OHRA without drastically cutting other grantees. That recommendation is expected at the next council meeting.

—Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at julieanneakins@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.