Commission denies backstretch funding request

CHARLES TOWN – The Jefferson County Commission denied a request from the Race Track Chaplaincy for $5,500 to expand a free substance abuse treatment program for backstretch workers last week.

[cleeng_content id="298308815" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]While many Commissioners expressed support for the program, they said they were unwilling to back it with funds in a tight and somewhat uncertain budget environment.

Chaplaincy board member Peter Fricke presented the request.

“We want to improve our counseling program,” he said. “We contract with EastRidge for therapists services. We are able to provide … a very small program.”

Fricke said backstretch workers are not usually formally employed, and therefore usually do not have health insurance. He has previously indicated that most are paid at a rate that is effectively below minimum wage.

Currently, he says, the chaplaincy is able to offer two hours of services each week for between four and five clients.

“This does not even scratch the surface of the issue at the track,” Fricke said. “The stewards tell us that in order for us to be able to handle only the crisis cases we need to expand this program by at least twice.”

“If we were to do it properly … we would need to be handling between 25 and 30 cases at any one time,” he added, indicating that this would require a dedicated yearly budget of between $55,000 and $75,000, an order of magnitude larger than their actual funding request.

Fricke saidtreating substance abuse problems on the backstretch was an issue that would impact the community as a whole.

“Our racetrack population – the people who work on the backstretch – live here year round,” he said. “Our request to you is not only for them to be able to continue their employment, but also to support and help abate substance abuse in the community.”

Fricke said the Chaplaincy is currently operating on a total annual budget of $81,000, which comes primarily from donations from PNGI, the Horsemen’s Benevolent Protection Association and assorted smaller donors.

Commissioner Dale Manuel said the HBPA should be allocating a larger portion of the purse fund to pay for medical care for backstretch workers. He pointed out that, in 2009, 25 percent of the purse fund had been allocated for medical costs while 75 percent had been allocated for administrative costs at Charles Town, while at Mountaineer the proportions were reversed.

“I’d like for you to take a hard look at that,” Fricke said. “I think that’s outrageous. We don’t need that kind of administrative cost. We need to do more for the backstretch folks.”

Fricke said his organization had argued for a greater proportion of the fund, but added that he HBPA had financial troubles of its own.

“Last year they were not able to pay us anything. We went from a budget of $104,000 to an $81,000 this year. And I have scraped every penny from any donor I could find,” he said. “They have made up for it this year, so we were able to pay down some of out back debts.”

Commissioner Walt Pellish said he sympathized with the problem but did not think it was the Commission’s place to provide funding in this case.

“I view this as a workplace environment issue,” he said, “and I have to view this as no different than some company in the industrial park. If they had drug and alcohol issues, it would be their responsibility to initiate programs to correct it. It seems to me that the people who should be funding this are the horsemen and (PNGI).”

Fricke said the issues for backstretch workers are issues that the community as a whole should be concerned with alleviating.

“It is also a community issue. These people live in our community,” he said. “Here is an opportunity to be proactive.”

Commissioner Jane Tabb said she worried that providing funding might overextend an already stretched budget.

“We’re in a really poor budget situation. We’re funding next year’s budget with $200,000 worth of carryover,” she said. “I can’t move on a funding request of this nature, even though I support the work that you do.”

Commissioner Lyn Widmyer said she would support funding the Chaplaincy.

“I think $5,500 is a small price to pay for the help that is being given to people that are in such desperate, desperate need. I think it’s a bargain,” she said.

Widmyer moved to approve funding, but the motion died for lack of a second.

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