Millions meant for needy Ohio veterans unspent
By JOSH SWEIGART | Dayton Daily News, Ohio | Published: August 30, 2013
DAYTON, Ohio — County agencies tasked with helping needy veterans are leaving about half of the money available to them on the table, according to a contract obtained by the Dayton Daily News that calls for a study of the century-old system of getting benefits to veterans.
The $98,463 contract was awarded by the Ohio Department of Veterans Services to a Boston consulting firm. After missing its July deadline, the firm completed the study earlier this month, according to the Department of Veterans Service, which declined to provide a copy of the study by Thursday’s press deadline.
Every county’s veterans services commission is entitled to a small percentage of its county’s property tax collection. This equated to a combined $121 million across Ohio in 2011. But only $56 million was spent on veterans services throughout the state. The rest helped fund other county programs.
The study proposal noted a disparity in how benefits for Ohio’s nearly 900,000 veterans are handled across the state.
“Funding available to the largest counties often goes unused for veterans’ services while funding available for veterans services in the counties with the smallest populations is absolutely inadequate to provide even the most basic services,” said the proposal.
The study’s results show that Ohio’s funding model is “unique” compared to other states, said Mike McKinney, communication director for the Ohio Department of Veterans Services.
Locally, Montgomery and Greene counties’ veterans services offices both use less than half of the money available for veterans and the counties keep the rest.
Some of the money used provides direct assistance to veterans in the form of mortgage, utility or other emergency aid. Much of the money helps staff offices that help veterans secure federal benefits and provide transportation to hospitals.
Montgomery County Veterans Services Commission executive director Herbert Davis said county commissioners do not constrain his office’s budget. That office spent roughly $1.5 million — of about $4.7 million available — to support the county’s 45,329 veterans.
“If I needed additional money, I would go back to the county and the county would give me the funds that I need,” he said. “We have a responsibility to meet the statutory requirements and we have a responsibility to meet the needs of the vet, and then we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the public’s money.”
His office actually gave back $851,588 to the county in 2012, more than any other county in Ohio. He said that was because state and federal benefits increased, and local needs decreased.
The agency raised the amount of emergency assistance veterans can get up to twice a year for rent or utilities from $1,500 to $2,000 last year. So far this year, 452 veterans in the county have received emergency aid.
Davis said his office, like all others in Ohio, also helps veterans secure millions of dollars each year in compensation and pension aid to veterans.
The study examined how veterans benefits are funded in other states and will explore setting up a trust fund to address the needs of veterans. Some are skeptical of the state’s motives.
“The state, I think at this point in time, considering their financial straits, is looking for a different revenue source and I wouldn’t put it past them to in some way gather this money from the (veterans services) commissions,” said Bernie Pontones, secretary treasurer for Vietnam Veterans of Ohio.
“It’s a bad system as it is now and it’s in need of reform, but every time someone comes in for reform, it’s usually at the expense of the veterans and the community.”
McKinney said the state plans to work with county veterans services commissions.
“We’ll take our time and thoroughly review the study,” he said in a written statement. “Our goal is to move forward with Ohio’s counties and its veterans communities to strive toward what we mutually believe will enhance services to our veterans.”
Vietnam Veterans of Ohio president Bill Schools said part of the problem is that veterans service commissions are political appointees from judges – and in some cases by county commissioners – and won’t stand up to county government.
“The problem is the county commissioners know they can use any money they don’t give out to veterans,” he said.
Veterans services commissioners do routinely square off with county commissioners over how to split the money. In some counties, veterans boards have even won judgments in court to get 100 percent of the tax collection.
State Rep. Rick Perales, R-Beavercreek, said during his two tenures as a Greene County commissioner there was a “give and take” every year with the veterans agency pushing for more funding.
“The fact is when we talked common sense with them, they understand this isn’t money that’s their money. Whatever they get, others don’t get … that means the prosecuting attorney gets less, or the auditor gets less. There’s only so much pie,” Perales said.
“It was never told to them to scrimp on veterans,” he added.
Perales is a veteran and sits on the House Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, through which any changes to the structure of veterans benefits in Ohio would likely pass. He said he was unaware of the state study.
Chris Chrystal, deputy director of Greene County veterans services, said their $733,997 budget — of the roughly $1.9 million available to them — is all they need.
“We want to be good stewards of the money, so we don’t want to just go out there and spend it on anything,” he said.
The county spends about $200,000 on about 100 vets a year with direct assistance such as helping them with food or car repairs. The rest is spent on transportation to medical centers and staffing an office to help secure federal benefits for the county’s 16,755 veterans.
A handful of other counties, however, get every dime due to them through the property tax and spend it all. This includes Athens County, which has only about 4,000 veterans and a veterans services budget of $465,375.
“We’re helping our veterans, maybe, perhaps, more than others,” said Michele Powell, Athens County veterans service officer. “If we have the money and that’s what it’s for, why should we return it to the (county) general fund instead of using it on veterans?”
Ohio Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander Keith Jeffers said before giving huge sums of money back county commissioners, veterans service offices with extra money should pay for a study of their own to determine if they could use that money to better serve veterans, and should spend more on outreach.
“I know there are veterans that live in counties, and they have lived their since World War II, and they don’t know what a veterans service commission is,” he said.