City staff members assert alcohol & drug program funds’ distribution is legal; advisory board member says questions remain

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After more than a year spent questioning the process and legality of how the city allocates its special alcohol tax revenue, an advisory board will meet Friday to discuss a staff memo that says the city’s appropriation of the money adheres to the law.

Members of the Special Alcohol Fund Advisory Board (SAFAB) have asked city leaders and staff since 2021 to make more transparent the process of how the city distributes revenue from the special alcohol tax.

SAFAB member Mandy Enfield said Thursday many questions still remain about the funding review process and the board’s role in making funding recommendations to the city commission. Enfield said she was speaking individually as an advisory board member and not on behalf of the SAFAB as a whole.

Kansas statute directs cities of 6,000 people or more to receive 70% of taxes from alcohol sales and distribute one-third to each of three city coffers: general fund, special parks and recreation fund, and a special alcohol and drug programs fund. A Lawrence city charter ordinance outlines use of the special alcohol tax. It says the money is to be directed toward “programs, services, equipment, personnel, and capital expenditures” related to alcohol or drug abuse treatment and prevention programs.

In 2021, eight community-based social services agencies received $692,000 from the special alcohol tax. In 2022, the city redirected $800,000 from the fund, along with $339,000 from the general fund, to the city’s new Housing Initiatives Division for interventions to support people who are unhoused, including emergency sheltering and case management.

Enfield said she welcomed a Dec. 20 memo by Assistant City Manager Brandon McGuire and City Attorney Toni Wheeler to city commissioners and SAFAB members. In the memo, McGuire and Wheeler wrote that “appropriation of Special Alcohol Fund moneys to the Housing Initiatives Division is legal and supported by City Code and Charter Ordinance No. 33.”

“In that memo … it’s the very first time that they’ve said, ‘We think addressing homelessness aligns with drug and alcohol abuse, prevention and treatment,’” Enfield said. “I think this is the bare minimum for our role, is to say that funds are being used for their intended use.”

In the city’s 2023 budget, the special alcohol tax fund appropriates $843,000 to the HID. That’s in addition to up to $224,906 of unspent 2022 funds incurred through Nov. 25, according to an email Thursday from Porter Arneill, city spokesperson. Money carried over to 2023 will fund division initiatives such as the city’s temporary Winter Emergency Shelter and the support site in North Lawrence for people experiencing homelessness, according to the Dec. 20 memo.

“Responding to homelessness was one of the top priorities identified in the City’s Strategic Plan, which was created following engagement with more than 3,000 community members,” McGuire and Wheeler wrote in the memo.

“People experiencing homelessness suffer disproportionately from addiction to alcohol and/or drugs,” McGuire and Wheeler wrote. “Addiction can contribute to people becoming homeless, and recovery from addiction while experiencing homelessness is challenging and potentially dangerous.”

The redirection of outside agency funding to the city’s Housing Initiatives Division has created challenges for community-based social service agencies that had come to rely on the grants. Enfield referred to the change as a step toward a larger move to shift responsibilities for social services funding from cities to counties by way of the Kansas Constitution.

Enfield agreed the city should prioritize funding toward ending chronic homelessness and addiction; she said the problem lies in the removal of the SAFAB’s role in the process and the ambiguity that’s followed.


RFP process

Prior to the change, the advisory board reviewed and offered funding recommendations to Lawrence city commissioners for use of the special alcohol tax. Since the change, SAFAB members have made requests for the city to create a transparent Request for Proposal (RFP) application process, but to no avail, Enfield said.

“Locally, the legality issue seems unresolved for me in the bypassing of the board,” Enfield said. “I don’t understand how or why it is necessary to cut the board from the process. The commission has the right to use the funds as they see fit even if the board recommendation is different. And the board said from the get go that we are amenable to serving the housing goal and whatever process the city wants to use. But we still don’t have a process.”

When asked in an email if there was a document or online link available to explain the current process for allocation of SAFAB funds, Arneill responded that the “decision was made in direct response to the listening sessions held as part of the City’s strategic plan development community engagement process where the community identified a need for the City to do more to address the needs of those experiencing houselessness.”

“The decision to move away from an open-ended grant process was discussed throughout the City’s budget process in the summer of 2021 and reaffirmed in the summer of 2022,” Arneill wrote. “As a result, it was decided to direct city dollars to address three priorities: homeless outreach, emergency sheltering, and rapid rehousing. This was ultimately decided by the City Commission when the budget was passed in September 2022.”

Arneill said the city remained focused on homelessness response, services, and outreach; emergency sheltering; and support for housing availability and solutions. He said the city released an RFP in 2022 for a vendor to provide operations for the Winter Emergency Shelter.

“While we did not receive any viable responses, we will attempt again in 2023 to procure this service,” Arneill wrote. “We also have procured services from Bert Nash (Homeless Outreach Team) as well as the Lawrence Community Shelter, The Care Center, and Willow Domestic Violence Center. We plan to procure vendor and facilities such as modular bedroom units for a managed support site in 2023.”

Future of the SAFAB

Enfield said she also wanted answers about the future role of the SAFAB, which serves in a volunteer capacity. She said she feared the board could be eliminated or absorbed by another advisory board before the public could remedy what she called “egregious violations of basic city process.”

“What if the next commission wants to fund social services?” Enfield asked. “They will have to rebuild this process infrastructure from scratch. It is hard for me to believe that staff or commission will have the time to devote to this small corner of the budget.”

During the meeting, board members also will receive an update on $8.29 million in the city’s American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The Special Alcohol Fund Advisory Board meeting is set to begin at 8:30 a.m. Friday, Jan. 6 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. See the agenda at this link. Register to join the meeting via Zoom at this link. Live public comment can be made in person or virtually using the Zoom link. Meetings are also livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel.

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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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