McDonell: 'I don't think our public money should go to an organization that relies on deception to advance their agenda.'
After grilling representatives of Care Net Pregnancy Center of Dane County for close to two hours, a city panel voted against funding the group's proposed affordable housing project.
The motion before the Community Development Block Grant committee failed by 5-2.
Rhonda Thompson, development director for Care Net, said Friday her organization was disappointed in the decision of the committee but would move forward.
"If the development cannot be completed, the real losers will be the 36 families who will not have access to this safe and affordable housing," she said.
Thompson said her group still intends to submit an application to WHEDA for affordable housing tax credits and expects that the project's development team will look into its options with the city.
City staff had recommended extending two low-interest loans totaling $550,000 to Care Net, which operates a crisis pregnancy center and residential home for pregnant single mothers on MacArthur Road. The group is proposing to build a 36-unit apartment building and daycare on land it owns next to its center.
The first sign of trouble came early Thursday evening when Ald. Joe Clausius, whose district includes the proposed project and who had earlier voiced support for the project and Care Net's work, told committee members he had changed his position.
"I'm a lifelong pro-choice person," he said. Clausius noted that he supported the conditional use permit for the site -- which was approved by the Plan Commission Monday night -- but said that he had recently become aware of the "tactics" used by Care Net and that it would be wrong for taxpayers to support the project.
"I will not support this on the council floor, and I encourage you to reject it at this time," said Clausius.
Clausius' comments came after Megin McDonell, a board member with NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, and Ald. Lisa Subeck, the former executive director of NARAL, told the committee that Care Net, an anti-abortion, faith-based group, misleads women about the risks of abortion and does not offer "all-options" counseling, as it advertises.
"I don't think our public money should go to an organization that relies on deception to advance their agenda," McDonell said.
Care Net executive director Liz Osborn acknowledged that her organization does not refer for abortion services but rejected claims of misleading women.
"It would be counterproductive for Care Net to coerce any woman into any decision," she said.
Osborn and other representatives of the project said there would be little connection between Care Net and the housing project, noting that a professional management company would be in charge of screening tenants and running the facility. Osborn also said that Care Net services would not be offered on the grounds of the apartment building.
Mary Charnitz of the Community Development Block Grant office said that Care Net would be prohibited from bringing "their religious affiliations and political beliefs into this project." And she warned members of the funding guidelines: "My understanding is that we cannot discriminate against Care Net because of their political beliefs or medical philosophy as long as they do not impose that on the housing."
But some committee members were skeptical that a hard line could be drawn between Care Net and the housing project.
"In the real world it seems to me there's going to be a pretty clear connection," Ald. Matt Phair said. "At least that's the perception. It seems to me, of course, your clients are going to know about the housing and will be on the list. There's a connection without the connection."
Members seemed to be particularly concerned when, in response to questions, Care Net representatives acknowledged the possibility that revenue from the apartment building could eventually flow back to Care Net.
Before voting, panel members also expressed concerns that staff was recommending that the affordable housing trust fund loan be paid back over 16 years at 2.3% interest, when the city had advertised a higher interest rate and shorter payback time in its request for proposal.
"They expressed discomfort with the need to deviate from the stated terms," said Jim O'Keefe, director of the Community Development Block Grant office, on Friday. "The idea is to use the money in a way that it will come back and replenish the fund so it can be used again for future projects."
On Friday, Thompson of Care Net said she was disappointed that the issue of abortion dominated the debate among committee members.
"Care Net is not about debating the abortion issue," she said. "We are nonpolitical. Our mission is to provide free and confidential and needed services to help women and men who are in need."