Assembly supports Serenity House relocation

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008

It didn't take long for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to conduct business Tuesday, as the members disposed of a short agenda in about 90 minutes.

But during that time, they approved Central Peninsula Hospital's request that the borough support their effort to purchase and equip a new home for Serenity House Treatment Center. The vehicle for that support was Resolution 2008-020.

About half the audience, perhaps more, were on hand to testify or show support for a larger drug and alcohol treatment facility in Soldotna. Central Peninsula General Hospital Inc. has been researching several properties and believes it has found a house on 40 acres in Soldotna that would serve the purpose, and allow Serenity House to expand from six beds to as many as 12.

The current facility, occupied since 2001, pays $26,400 a year in rent, but operates without a long-term lease. It would need substantial remodeling to make it accessible to people with handicaps. The hospital's board of directors believes an expanded facility would increase revenues and reduce operating losses.

Ryan Smith, hospital CEO, was not specific about the location of the property the board is eying, because, he said, the hospital has not yet made an offer. He did say it was in Soldotna and was nearer to the hospital than any of the other properties researched, and that it would serve the needs of the treatment program.

Smith said the board authorized the replacement and expansion of Serenity House at its meeting in January, authorizing expenditure of up to $973,500 from the Plant Expansion and Replacement Fund to purchase, renovate and equip a new facility. It appears grants will cover a major portion of the overall costs.

"The Denali Commission did award $486,750 toward this project," he said. "In addition to that we have applied to the state of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services for a grant of $35,000 and have been notified we will be awarded that amount also."

The board also has applied for a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation.

"We are not asking for an additional mill levy just for Serenity House," Smith continued. "We are asking for your support for using our Plant Replacement and Expansion funds, which are funds generated from operations."

He said an ordinance would be presented to the assembly in the near future authorizing use of the fund dollars as matching funds for the Denali Commission grant. The fund currently has in excess of $5.5 million, Smith said.

Under the hospital's Lease and Operating Agreement with the borough, purchases in excess of $250,000 require review by the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area Board and approval by the assembly. Should the project require more than $1 million, hospital service area voters would have to approve.

Matt Dammeyer, a member of the Serenity House Advisory Board, said there is a need for such treatment facilities. State data shows there may be as many as 5,000 people who would meet the criteria for alcohol and drug addiction treatment at the level provided by Serenity House, he said.

Audrey Gifford, who said she is a recovering alcoholic and addict, said the waiting list at Serenity House delayed her entry into the facility in 2006 by a month.

"A month is a lifetime when you are desperately reaching out for help," she said, adding that she knows of someone who died waiting for treatment.

Addicts seeking help at Serenity House are not strangers, she added, but rather "our children, our parents, our co-workers and neighbors." She urged the assembly to support the resolution.

Leah Stanford, a Serenity House employee, said demand for beds often requires them to "flop the house," a term referring to having to switch clients between rooms to accommodate the ever-changing numbers of one gender or the other. Serenity House has a four-bed loft and a two-bed lower floor room, she said.

"More beds are really needed," she said.

Intake Coordinator Christy Walker said Serenity House was the only treatment center in Alaska that is short-term, running a one-month program. All others are three- to six-month or year-long programs. She said the facility gets requests from all over the state and that the waiting list is typically two to six weeks, and even longer in the summer months.

"That's a long time if you are an addict out there trying to hang on by your fingernails," she said.

Assemblyman Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, said he supported the work of Serenity House, but raised issues about who should pay the costs.

"Where are (Native Corporations) as far as paying for this project?" he said. "The state gets millions of dollars from the tax on alcohol. The state has this obligation."

He said borough residents should not have to pay for a state program. For those reasons, he said, he would vote against the resolution.

The rest of the members present Tuesday supported the measure, which passed 7-1. Borough Assembly President Grace Merkes was absent.

Later, Borough Mayor John Williams thanked the assembly for taking the action. He noted that he "was astounded" by the number of people who attended and spoke out at a recent gathering at Kenai Central High School, part of a statewide drug education program sponsored by the Tri-Borough Commission and Marathon Oil.

"I was astounded at the number of young people who were willing to stand up and talk about their addiction," he said. "Not only their addiction, but the hoped-for treatment and the treatment some of these young people have been through."

He said alcohol and hard drugs such as methamphetamine are a major problem on the peninsula.

"There were enough people there that night that we could have filled Serenity House in its present state a couple of times over," he said. "There is a problem here on the Kenai Peninsula."

He said he believed it was partly society's responsibility to take on, recognize the problems, and offer treatment.

In other business, the assembly:

* Heard testimony but postponed action on Ordinance 2008-05, a measure that would impose new road standards. A second hearing is scheduled for April 1.

* Adopted Ordinance 2007-19-37, accepting and appropriating a $50,000 Denali Commission grant toward removing junk vehicles from the village of Tyonek.

* Adopted Ordinance 2007-19-40 authorizing funding necessary to purchase new routing equipment for the 911 Call Center.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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