Haines might not be getting the $1.4 million disaster assistance from the state it was promised

Crews from Haines, the state’s Department of Transportation and Alaska Power & Telephone work to reconnect power to residents of Lutak Road on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020, in Haines, Alaska. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

There’s uncertainty over whether Haines will actually receive the $1.4 million in state disaster assistance it was promised in the wake of destructive landslides late last year. Local officials worry the Dunleavy administration may have had a change of heart after it learned it had more time to spend the money elsewhere.

During the first week of December, landslides and flooding destroyed nine homes and killed two people in Haines. Dozens of residents are still displaced.

About a week and a half later, the state Department of Health and Social Services (DHHS) announced $1.4 million in disaster funding was coming to Haines via Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Some of it was for psychiatric services in Haines. Bartlett Hospital’s Chief Behavioral Health Officer Bradley Grigg came up with a team of specialists for two weeks. At that time, he said the disaster funding covered their expenses and there was more money leftover.

“The rest of the money is going to be distributed throughout the community to support short term and longer term, where we can, to ensure that families who have been impacted by the heavy rains and the floods last week, this funding will directly support them,” Grigg said.

The source of the funds was federal pandemic relief granted to the state through the CARES Act. At that time, the state had about two weeks to allocate its share of the funds or return it to the federal government.

Interim Haines Borough Manager Alekka Fullerton says that hospital officials quickly organized meetings to figure out how to get that money out the door. Then she says they found a snag: Bartlett Regional Hospital is a public entity controlled by the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ).

“So it was in effect, one municipality giving money to another municipality,” Fullerton said. “Apparently CBJ’s lawyers were alerted to that and had additional questions. There are some other processes in place for giving money from one municipality to another.”

CBJ attorneys informed the Haines Borough that Bartlett Regional Hospital had decided to return the money to the state. That way the state could redistribute the funds directly to the local government in Haines.

“That’s when I got nervous,” Fullerton says.

Fullerton says she’s been on the phone with state officials for weeks trying to figure it out. She’s reached out to the governor’s office and the state public health agency.

Haines resident Bill Thomas, a special assistant to the governor, forwarded Fullerton an email from a Department of Health and Social Services official. The agency did not send it to Fullerton directly.

In the email, legislative liaison Suzanne Cunningham wrote that once Congress extended the deadline to spend CARES Act funds, the $1.4 million was no longer available for Haines. For Fullerton, that explanation is confusing and unsatisfying.

“I think the state said, ‘Wow, we have all this funny money that’s going to expire on December 30 what are we going to do with it? Oh, here’s a great idea! Let’s give it to Haines.’ Then I think once they realized it’s not going to expire, they’re clawing it back thinking that, ‘Wow, there are many other things that if we had a year we would rather spend it on than Haines.'”

That’s Fullerton’s take on the situation. Bartlett Regional Hospital’s Bradley Griggs referred questions to the state.

In an email to KHNS, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services communications director Clinton Bennett said the disaster support funding was not a $1.4 million check written to Haines. He wrote that the CARES Act funds were intended for Bartlett Regional hospital to provide services in Haines, but the City and Borough of Juneau determined the hospital did not have the authority to expend those funds outside of Juneau. Bennet said DHSS continues to work with stakeholders to resolve the situation, but nothing has been finalized.

State lawmakers representing Haines say they’re looking into the issue. Juneau Democrats Rep. Sara Hannan and Sen. Jesse Kiehl say they’re making inquiries but weren’t ready to comment.

It’s not clear if or how Haines local government could plug a $1.4 million hole if the state doesn’t release the funds. Fullerton says officials had planned to use it to help displaced families with rent and utilities, purchase equipment for telehealth services and fund mental health services for people affected by the disaster.

KHNS - Haines

KHNS is our partner station in Haines. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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