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Agencies struggle to find veterans who need help

DAYTON, Ohio — County veterans service offices across Ohio spend roughly $1.2 million a year tackling what many say is their biggest challenge: finding veterans and letting them know that the county has services to help.

But the state Department of Veterans Services has been maintaining a list of names and addresses of veterans for years, the Dayton Daily News has learned. They just can’t figure out how to effectively share the information.

The state recently commissioned a $98,000 study highlighting the wide disparity among county agencies — affluent counties have more money than they need, and poor counties don’t have enough to help veterans. The study looked at ways the system could be restructured.

Autonomous county agencies, fearing a money grab by the state, say the cabinet-level state department does little to help them help veterans in their counties.

“Nothing,” is what Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission President Dave Fierst said the state provides to help his office. He said the state should take the lead in tracking veterans and steering them to county agencies.

State officials said they provide several tangible services, including working with lawmakers to advocate for veterans issues, administering the Ohio Veterans Bonus program, managing two federal education-related programs and maintaining more than 2.1 million veterans records dating back to World War II. Most of the agency’s $80 million budget pays to operate two veterans homes.

The state has been tracking veterans since 2009, when an agreement with the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles allowed for the sharing of mailing addresses of those who self-identify as veterans when renewing their license. In four years, more than 829,000 names, addresses and birthdates have been collected for the list.

But the list so far hasn’t been very helpful. An April letter to the state from Montgomery County officials said a list of 44,900 available to the county since 2011 “was so difficult to interpret and read that we have not used it for any purpose.”

The state has used the statewide list to mail fliers about upcoming events or notify veterans about their bonuses, said Mike McKinney, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Veteran Services said. McKinney said the state has been ironing out details of how the list-sharing would work with other counties before releasing the information.

“We’ve had a lot of technical and legal challenges we had to work with before we could share with the counties,” McKinney said. “We had to make sure the list was protected.”

Only four counties have elected to get the list since it became available through a secure online portal for county agency use this month — none in southwest Ohio.

Officials in Warren County said they were never offered access to the online database, and they’re skeptical that a list of veterans addresses would help with their outreach efforts. Officials tried to send mailers provided by the state to area veterans in 2008 but said response was low — well below 10 percent.

“We spent a lot of money on postage,” said Tom Britton, Warren County Veteran Service Commission president. “We don’t ever hesitate to try anything. If they send a list down here, then we’ll try to use it but we’re not going to spend our money uselessly if we’re not getting the results.”

Getting this list into the hands of county agencies is one example of how the state could be more useful to county offices, Montgomery County’s Fierst said.

“We want to contact these veterans and at least let them know we’re here,” he said. “I’d be willing to sit down and sign 200 letters a month.”

In a previous investigation, the Dayton Daily News found that county agencies vary wildly in how much emergency assistance they provide to needy veterans. Butler and Montgomery counties had some of the highest denial rates of any county in Ohio for emergency aid, while small counties such as Miami spent more money than larger counties with less oversight.

The same data analyzed by this newspaper show that county agencies spend tens of thousands of dollars on outreach such as billboards and newspaper ads to find veterans, adding up to nearly $1.2 million statewide.

While the state and county agencies struggle to find veterans and marshal enough resources to help them, local veterans are struggling, according to Robert Critell, Navy Vietnam veteran and former director of a council of VFW posts in Montgomery County.

VFW posts hear every month from local veterans who call needing help with things such as utility bills or making a rent payment before they get evicted, Critell recently told Montgomery County commissioners. He said almost all of them had already been turned away by Montgomery County Veterans Services.

“Either they (the county) can’t help and they’re sending them to us because they know they can’t help them, or they are being lazy and they don’t want to spend the money and they know we’re an easy mark,” he said.

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