In an effort to reach out to more veterans next year, the Butler County Veteran Service Commission is asking for a 50 percent increase — the largest increase requested by any county agency— in its 2014 operating budget.
The agency’s request for more funds follows a similar request from the Warren County veterans agency, which asked its board of county commissioners for a 37 percent funding increase, and a Journal-News investigation that found Ohio’s county veterans agencies spent less than half of the $121 million they collected in 2012.
The request to increase the agency’s budget from $1.3 million to $2 million next year is, in part, because of a push from state officials, Butler County Veterans Service Commission Director Curt McPherson told county commissioners earlier this week.
“The directors of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services are telling us that we should become more aggressive on outreach and to try to enlist as many veterans as possible,” McPherson said.
The state hasn’t issued any mandate over funding, according to Mike McKinney, veterans services spokesman.
“There’s no specific message that was sent this year or any year regarding funds,” McKinney said.
Ohio’s county veteran agencies are autonomous from county or state government but are entitled to a small portion of property taxes every year to assist veterans in need. Although those agencies are required to submit budgets to county commissioners for approval, commissioners are essentially required to approve the budgets under state law.
Butler County’s veterans agency plans to spend an additional $315,000 next year in financial aid to help veterans pay for bills, food or rent. The agency is asking for $80,000 to give most of its employees 4 percent raises and to hire an additional service officer to help veterans process financial aid requests and federal pension or disability claims.
Last year, Butler County’s agency turned away a higher percentage of veterans seeking help than any other county in the state.
Another $200,000 increase has been requested for the agency to provide veterans a door-to-door transportation service to medical appointments.
Butler County Veteran Service Commission’s transportation program is already the most expensive in the state, but agency officials predict the program’s cost will rise by as much as $200,000 in 2014.
The agency currently pays $290,000 annually to the Butler County Regional Transit Authority under a contract that will expire in March. That contract won’t be renewed because the transit authority isn’t paid enough to transport veterans to the Cincinnati Veteran Affairs Medical Center, according to Carla Lakatos, the BCRTA director.
“We can’t continue to lose money on those trips,” Lakatos said.
Lakatos said the authority might bid on the veterans transportation contract and has suggested re-working the driving schedule to save on costs in the past.
Butler County Veteran Service Commission President Dan Biondo said he’s concerned about the potentially high increase for transportation costs and would prefer to continue a contract with the county’s transit agency.
As of Monday, five private firms had registered to bid for the transportation contract. One of the bidders is Universal Transportation Systems of Fairfield, which previously held a $481,000 contract with the veterans agency until 2011 when county officials, citing the high cost, contracted with the regional transit authority.
Butler County Veteran Service Commission spends more than any other county in the state because they provide more service, McPherson said.
“Are we being more generous? Yes,” he said. “But go to a veteran that’s using it and ask him if they don’t think it’s a great service.”
County veteran agencies spent more than $4 million last year transporting veterans to medical appointments, but each county provides that service in a different way. Hamilton County directs veterans to use the countywide metro system, while Warren County buys its own vans and employs veterans to drive other veterans to their medical appointments.
“Our drivers can sit here and tell you about the veterans’ war stories. They build a personal relationship,” said Rodney Eversole, the Warren County agency’s director, of the program.
While he could not provide exact figures on how much the program costs, he estimates the salaries and benefits for the drivers as well as fuel and vehicle costs total less than $300,000.