Butler County board could close Middletown office for veterans

Credit: Denise G. Callahan/STAFF

Credit: Denise G. Callahan/STAFF

The coronavirus pandemic is hampering the Butler County Veterans Service Commission’s ability to hire and train service officers, prompting the new executive director to recommend shutting down the Middletown satellite office.

Executive Director Mike Farmer’s suggestion to shutter the office was met with strong resistance from the majority of the board last week. The topic came up as the board approved the $3.1 million budget for next year. Closing the office would save $100,000 in rent, utilities and not hiring a new service officer and receptionist.

Before Farmer was promoted to the top spot, he was the Middletown office service officer, which now leaves a vacancy at the agency. The service officers have not been having face-to-face meetings with veterans during the pandemic, and Farmer told the board it would be prudent to close the office.

“It will be 18 months minimum from today before we have a service officer that is capable of being in Middletown,” Farmer told his board. “So what you’re looking at is the Middletown location is solely used for financial applications, which we have found a way to do those all remotely, and a receptionist. So the question becomes do we physically need that brick and mortar location.”

He said it will take that long to find and train and replacement.

Board President Chuck Weber told the Journal-News later that there has been a direct correlation between the reopening the Middletown location in 2017 and the number of vets served per month, which rose above 600 before the pandemic.

“I don’t want them to take the easy way out on this thing and just say, ‘Well, the easy way is just close it,’ and then we’ll have to hope all the veterans from Middletown want to come down to Hamilton” Weber said.

He believes a workable option is asking Chief Service Officer Matt Jones, who works in the Hamilton office, to spend some time working in Middletown until a full-time replacement is established.

“I don’t want that to be stalled because of a scenario that I think can be worked around,” Weber said.

The board operated a satellite office in Middletown from 2011 to 2016, when it was closed for staffing reasons. It was reopened in 2017.

Commissioners Dave Reed and Dave Smith also balked at closing the office.

“We got a lot of emotional reaction when we opened that office, it was like a Godsend to the Middletown area,” Smith said. “I’d hate to see that cast away, it doesn’t sit right right now. Are we reacting to COVID, are we overreacting.”

Reed said if they weren’t in the midst of a pandemic he doubts they would take this drastic step.

“I don’t think we should shut it down,” Reed said. “If this was a normal, 2019, would we shut it down? No, we’d just rearrange things and put someone up there that’s qualified.”

Commissioner Bruce Jones said the only reason to station someone in Middletown is so people can pick up financial assistance checks.

“There is no need for that right now because we aren’t doing face-to-face," Jones said. “So all you’re doing is moving someone to Middletown to take a phone call that can be taken in Hamilton. The only thing that’s in question in my opinion is the checks on Fridays that those people to the north of us relied on the Middletown office to go pick up. I’m saying that bus fare for free seems to take care of that.”

The commissioners approved the $3.1 million budget but didn’t vote on the office closure. Farmer told the Journal-News they asked him not to post the job openings for now.

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