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Wasilla senator who worked for social service agency proposes to revoke grants for others

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: April 30, 2017
  • Published April 30, 2017

David Wilson, R-Wasilla, stands with other senators at the state Capitol in January. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

JUNEAU — A bill from freshman Wasilla Republican Sen. David Wilson would hurt nearly a dozen social service organizations in the Mat-Su — with the notable exception of the agency where Wilson worked through the end of last year.

Senate Bill 90, unveiled by Wilson last month, would eliminate a state program that distributed nearly $1.5 million in cash grants to Anchorage, Fairbanks and Mat-Su nonprofits this year to provide "essential human services."

The bill has prompted questions because of its effect, and Wilson's refusal to explain why he introduced it.

In the Mat-Su, the grants, distributed by the borough, have paid for a case manager at a youth homeless shelter, home-delivered meals for seniors and free legal help for families with children at risk of abuse or neglect.

But Wilson's employer through his election, the nonprofit Alaska Family Services, wasn't among the 11 organizations that received the most recent round of grants.

The group didn't apply for this year's grant. It got about $10,000 for a tobacco control program in 2015 and 2016.

But separate requests for $35,000 in 2014 and $30,000 in 2015 — to support a shuttle service to drive clients to appointments — were rejected.

Mat-Su elected leaders and nonprofits appear to be uniformly against Wilson's proposal. The bill hasn't come before a committee yet, and no hearings are scheduled.

An official with one grant recipient — a Wasilla youth homeless shelter called My House — said she doesn't understand the purpose of Wilson's legislation to repeal the program. And she questioned the effect it could have on organizations that depend on the grant money.

"For some of the small nonprofits, it could put them completely out of business," said Michelle Overstreet, My House's director. "It's hard to imagine that there isn't an ulterior motive for cutting funding that wouldn't benefit an organization that he's championing the cause for. It doesn't make any sense."

In a brief interview, Wilson said Overstreet's assertion was incorrect, adding that he has no ongoing relationship with Alaska Family Services.

But he wouldn't give an explanation for why he's proposing to eliminate the grant program — saying that one would emerge when and if his bill gets its first hearing.

"There hasn't been a bill hearing," Wilson said. "Thus the bill should stand for itself."

Wilson is a former Wasilla City Council member elected to the state Senate last year after an upset win in the Republican primary. He edged Wasilla Rep. Lynn Gattis, who was trying to move to the Legislature's upper chamber after the retirement of Charlie Huggins, the incumbent.

SB 90 isn't the first action by Wilson as an elected official that's raised questions about his relationship with Alaska Family Services, where he was director of a domestic violence and sexual assault program, supervising outreach efforts and an emergency shelter.

Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, photographed in January. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

As a council member — and while he was still working for the organization — Wilson sponsored an ordinance to send $150,000 to Alaska Family Services for its work with a sexual assault response team.

Wilson declared that he wasn't paid with the team's money and that a previous mayor had ruled that he didn't have a conflict of interest on similar matters.

In the ensuing debate, Wilson tried to step down from his council chair and into the audience to testify on behalf of the ordinance, but was blocked by Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle, said Brandon Wall, another former council member.

"It was, for sure, one of the weirdest nights on Council," said Wall, who's since moved out of state. "We all agreed unanimously, 'Hey, you've got a conflict here.' And he didn't feel like he did, so he didn't leave the table. And despite the mayor saying, 'Hey, you need to leave the table,' he tried to testify and the mayor wouldn't let him. It was super awkward."

Wilson introduced SB 90 in March. While the legislation's title specifically refers to "the powers of the Department of Health and Social Services," Senate President Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, referred it to the finance committee and the community and regional affairs committee — rather than the health and social services committee that Wilson chairs.

Kelly, in a brief interview Friday, said he didn't consider Wilson's former job at Alaska Family Services when deciding where to refer the bill.

Wilson's testimony at an October meeting of the Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault — a state agency that also issues grants to social services organizations, including Alaska Family Services — suggests he's been frustrated by the way that the state distributes money for programs like the ones he used to work with.

"The best solution I can see to fix this is a change of leadership, as the state is in a crisis, in my opinion, CDVSA is not ready for," Wilson said in his testimony, according to a transcript. "My future plans are to work to fix a lot of these inequalities and inequities within the state government."

At the time, Wilson was still working at Alaska Family Services but was assured of election after winning the GOP primary in August and running unopposed in the general election. In his testimony, he complained of a "vast lack of leadership, communication and coordination" from the council as well as "allocative inefficiencies."

Wilson also told an Alaska Dispatch News reporter last fall that one of his priorities in the Legislature would be cutting state health department spending.

"I'm sure I'm going to get into trouble from time to time," he said then. "I do push the envelope a little bit."

Donn Bennice, Alaska Family Services' chief executive, said he hadn't read the legislation sponsored by Wilson.

The program that Wilson wants eliminated is "not a major grant" for Bennice's organization, he said. And Bennice said he wasn't bothered by Alaska Family Services' inability to win the grants for the shuttle service in 2014 and 2015, since it did receive money for its tobacco-control program.

Wilson, Bennice added, isn't in touch with Alaska Family Services any more, and he isn't expected to return to the organization at the end of the legislative session.

"He is not working with us in any capacity," Bennice said.

Officials at other Valley nonprofits, as well as Cottle, the Wasilla mayor, and Vern Halter, the Mat-Su Borough mayor, said Wilson's bill would hurt the borough's ability to provide critical social services to its residents.

"I have no idea what he's thinking about," Halter said. "I certainly oppose it, and I hope he would think it through a little bit better."

The Mat-Su Borough got $280,000 from the state this year under the grant, which also sent $835,000 to Anchorage and $275,000 to Fairbanks. Each municipality contributes matching money — the Mat-Su borough's share is 30 percent.

Among the recipients is Access Alaska, a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities. The group's $30,000 grant supports a program for vulnerable people who can't otherwise afford something critical to daily life, said Doug White, the organization's executive director.

Three-fourths of the way through the fiscal year, the Access Alaska program has helped about 20 people with things like medical bills, home repairs and transportation that might not be covered under other programs, White said.

"Who's going to fix my floorboards because they're rotting and I'm impoverished and I have a disability?" White asked. "This is a small amount of money, but the impact on individual lives is huge."

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