Posted: 12:05 a.m. Monday, Sept. 9, 2013

Butler turns away more veterans seeking aid than any Ohio county

By Josh Sweigart and Amanda Seitz

Staff Writer

Butler County turned away a higher percentage of veterans seeking emergency financial assistance for things such as rent, utilities or groceries than any other county in Ohio last year, an investigation by the Hamilton Journal-News/Middletown Journal found.

Less than 1 percent of the estimated 27,000 veterans living in Butler County received emergency aid in 2012 from county taxpayers. Of the 432 times a veteran asked for help, they were turned away nearly 40 percent of the time.

Butler County’s Veterans Service Commission spent more money paying its director, assistant director and five appointed commissioners than providing direct financial aid to veterans, the newspaper found.

The newspaper analyzed Ohio’s 88 county veterans service commissions following a recent study that pointed out that the property tax-funded system has led to affluent counties with more money than they need and poor counties lacking the resources to help veterans. County veteran service commissions were entitled to a combined $121 million in 2011, but many agencies spent less than half of those funds to help veterans.

How counties spend their money varies widely as well, the newspaper found, especially in terms of emergency financial assistance provided by counties to help veterans get through financial crises.

Warren County’s Veterans Service Commission, for example, spent nearly three times the amount Butler County did in helping 840 of Warren’s roughly 16,500 veterans last year.

Dan Biondo, the president of the Butler County Veterans Service Commission, said he “had no idea” the county’s denial rate was abnormally high compared to other counties in the state.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are between 1,000 and 2,000 veterans living below the poverty line in Butler County. The county provided aid 223 times last year.

“Wow, that’s amazing,” Biondo said. “I feel bad. I guess we are to blame. We need to be more lenient and approve more applications because we have the money to do it.”

The commission’s executive director, Curtis McPherson, can deny any application for aid, but the Butler County Veterans Service Commissioners can hear appeals.

The Butler County Veterans Service Commission spent nearly $1.3 million last year but was entitled to $3.7 million of county taxpayer dollars. Only 13 percent of the budget paid for emergency financial assistance to veterans and another 15 percent, or $265,000, went to transporting veterans to medical appointments.

The bulk of the commission’s budget is spent on salaries and benefits. McPherson got a $4,000 raise from veterans service commissioners and will make $91,420 this year. Each of the five commissioners will collect between $7,000 and $14,000 this year.

In Warren County, the director will make $62,504 this year while each commissioner will collect $12,000.

Biondo called the salaries in the Butler County agency “high” and he fears the agency’s denial rate is deterring some veterans from applying for financial assistance. In 2011, 643 veterans applied for aid. As of July 31, 206 veterans had applied for aid through the agency this year.

McPherson said he tries to discourage veterans from relying too much on emergency financial aid fund.

“We give assistance to the veterans that are trying to help themselves,” McPherson said. “It’s emergency temporary financial assistance, it’s not a supplemental income.”

Butler County uses an 87-page guideline book to determine what or how much aid to give to veterans. Those guidelines restrict what the commission can give. For example, no more than $665 in monthly food allowance can be given to a veteran’s family of four, or $425 for monthly room and board.

Each county handles its financial aid guidelines differently.

Warren County also places guidelines on how much to give veterans. The county puts a $1,500 lifetime limit on aid for veterans, veterans’ spouses and their children, Rodney Eversole, executive director for the Warren County Veterans Service Commission, said. Any request beyond that $1,500 must get a special approval from the commission board.

“When people are coming to see us, they’re going through a rough patch in life. We try to go above and beyond in assisting these folks,” Eversole said. “It’s hard at the same time because sometimes we have to tell people things they don’t want to hear.”

Bob Bailey, 90, works a part-time job up to three days a week to make ends meet. His only other source of income is Social Security.

The Warren County resident served in WWII as a salvage and repair diver in the Navy. He believes the assistance a veteran is entitled to should be based on what they need, not where they live.

“I think if the guys need $3,000 to $4,000, they ought to get it. If they need $20, they ought to get it.”

Miami County approved every one of the 1,043 applications for help it received from needy veterans last year. The county spent 69 percent of its $890,000 budget on direct financial aid.

Miami County Veterans Service Commission President Joe Goetz said they are tightening up on financial assistance rules. Within the past year they began limiting veterans to three applications for up to $700 a year each and they added a lifetime maximum of $10,000 and started giving out food vouchers instead of cash for groceries. Before, he said, some people came in every month for hundreds of dollars.

McPherson said his agency is being responsible with taxpayer dollars by setting forth selective guidelines for financial aid. He said the agency is looking into ways to increase some of that aid.

“We respect the taxpayer money,” McPherson said.


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