(Source: AZCentral): Kelsey Mo – Gilbert is spending $1.2 million in federal money to open Page Park Center next spring to help residents in areas such as affordable health care and to help find jobs.
The move comes after a town-commissioned assessment three years ago revealed a need for more social services in the town.
Although some Gilbert Town Council members oppose government overreach into social services, a majority said it was time.
“We are three years down the road since that Needs Assessment and it’s time for us to move forward to make some of those adjustments in needs in the community,” Councilmember Brigette Peterson said.
Page Park Center will go into the first Gilbert library at Oak Street and Bruce Avenue, which has seen a variety of uses since the library moved years ago.
Renovation work on the 8,000 square-foot building began in July and is expected to wrap up in February 2018.
The town is spending U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds passed on to local government through the Community Development Block Grant Program to renovate a 53-year old building.
The feds require that the funding support services for lower-income residents such as employment resources, dental services and mental health counseling.
The town annually receives about $850,000 from the Community Development Block Grant. The town has used past funds for connecting Sonora Town to the town’s sewer system and offering residents an Emergency and Minor Home Repair Program.
AZCEND to occupy center
AZCEND, formerly called Chandler Christian Community Center, will operate Page Park Center, which should open between March and May 2018.
Faith-based groups created the non-profit in Chandler 50 years ago. Today, the group is not religiously affiliatedand expanded into Gilbert five years ago with services such as emergency food supplies, emergency rent and utility assistance and job search assistance, according to town documents.
For now, AZCEND works out of the Boys and Girls Club and the Gilbert Community Center, which are adjacent to Page Park Center.
“We envision the Page Park Center to be a ‘one-stop-shop’ so as families are coming for one need they can receive (help for) other needs as well,” Trinity Donovan, CEO of AZCEND, said.
Once in the new facility, the non-profit anticipates offering dental care, behavioral health resources and emergency financial assistance. The town’s agreement with the non-profit clarifies that resources cannot include or encourage services related to abortion, contraception, sterilization or in-vitro fertilization. This is not a service AZCEND offers anywhere, Donovan said.
AZCEND will not provide all the services, but will partner with such groups as Dignity Health, Mercy of Mission and WIC, Donovan said.
Donovan stressed the Page Park Center will be meant for everyone. While a majority of the Community Development Block Grant funding must support services for moderate and low-income people, they also can serve a broader audience.
“We want it to be a community resource, so it’s important it isn’t stigmatized as a place only for those in poverty,” Donovan said.
Fewer than 1 in 10 Gilbert residents live below the federal poverty level, which is around $24,000 for a family of four, according to the 2015 poverty thresholds from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The town will pay the center’s utilities and to maintain the building and AZCEND and other organizations will operate rent-free, according to the agreement.
The Town Council approved the contract on a 4-2 vote in late September.
One of the “no” votes came from Vice Mayor Victor Petersen, who said he has seen the town get into ventures that begin privately-funded, but later seek taxpayer funding.
“This is a foot-in-the-door and a really big foot-in-the-door I think to a direction that can very easily get out of control in the future,” Petersen said.
Councilman Jared Taylor said he worried that residents would take advantage of low-cost dental services instead of supporting local dentists in private practice.
The town has a long-standing trepidation over funding social services.
In 2012, the council planned to completely cut local taxpayer funding for non-profits over five years, aiming to replace it with voluntary donations.
Initially, non-profits felt the drain of funds. Save the Family, an organization which provides housing assistance to Gilbert families, received only $5,000 from Gilbert in fiscal 2014. That rose to $15,000 in fiscal 2018.
Council restored the local funding in 2014 after the town-commissioned report showed Gilbert’s need for social services. Funding for non-profits increased from about $330,000 in fiscal 2012 to around $428,000 in fiscal 2018.
The report found the town had significant service gaps for domestic violence victims, the homeless and people with low to moderate incomes, among other populations.
“Families and individuals in crisis” were the most under-served, but multiple groups cited a lack of transportation, substance abuse treatment and mental-health facilities.
Although the council restored funding to non-profits,Gilbert residents can still donate to charities using the Neighbor 2 Neighbor program, a monthly donation on utility bills, which raised around $26,000 last fiscal year.
The program raised another $50,000 last fiscal year through advertising, as well as some funding through the sale of Gilbert merchandise on the town’s website.
The town also is partnering with a non-profit to host iRun4Good races on Oct. 28 at Freestone Park. The proceeds will go into the Neighbor 2 Neighbor fund, specifically for mental health and substance abuse services, Community Resources Program Supervisor Melanie Dykstra said.
As donations from the Neighbor 2 Neighbor program increase, the amount requested from the town’s general fund will drop, Dykstra said.
Town officials in the past also have expressed reluctance at accepting federal funds.
In 2013, Council members Eddie Cook, Taylor and Petersen said they planned to flat-out reject more than $700,000 in federal CDBG dollars directed at a senior center and local non-profits.
The effort stemmed from an ideological belief that if Gilbert accepts federal dollars, the town contributes to the national debt and loses the “moral position” to complain about federal overspending.
If Gilbert had rejected the money, the funds would have been divided among other communities.
The council ended up putting the funds toward infrastructure projects in low-income neighborhoods.