Casey James, right, service officer with the Butler County Veterans Service Commission, meets with a client in the Middletown branch office on Breiel Boulevard. NICK GRAHAM/2017

Number of Butler County veterans needing assistance rises

With the number of Butler County veterans needing emergency cash and other assistance up 12 percent in the first quarter this year, the veterans board this week approved a 10.6 percent preliminary budget increase for next year.

Vetearns Board President Chuck Weber said the increased number of veterans seeking help signals to him that the group’s outreach efforts are working.

“In a real sense, a budget increase for us doesn’t have to be a lot, but a budget increase represents success at our agency,” Weber said. “What we are trying to achieve.”

The commissioners approved their annual tax budget that totals $2.6 million for next year, up from the $2.4 million spending plan for this year. That figure is preliminary and subject to change, but does not represent something that is subject to tax hikes.

RELATED: Butler County Veterans Board breaks service record

The commission, which is responsible for helping about 26,000 veterans — the agency has served an average 502 veterans a month this year compared to 448 during the same time last year — is funded by a percentage of the general fund millage the legislature carved out to help veterans.

Butler County’s millage is bringing in about $3.7 million annually but historically the board has budgeted and spent in the neighborhood of $2 million or less, doling out emergency cash, helping veterans navigate the Veterans Administration system, arranging and paying for transportation to medical appointments and finding local services for everything from legal issues to marriage counseling. The remainder of that money reverts to the county’s general fund.

The largest cut of the proposed budget is $700,000 — compared to $623,000 this year — for veterans’ financial assistance, things like help with rent, car payments, utilities, food and other necessities. There are very stringent guidelines for who can qualify for emergency aide. In the years prior to Executive Director Caroline Bier’s arrival — when the board was characterized as dysfunctional — numbers showed the board could be rather stingy where financial assistance was concerned.

An analysis by the Journal-News showed the agency turned away nearly 40 percent of veterans seeking emergency financial assistance in 2012 — the highest rate in the state.

Statistics show in 2013 the board approved 304 applications for assistance for a total dollar outlay of $220,120. Last year there were 571 awards totalling $652,422. Through April this year there have already been 211 awards and $243,049 given.

Although the financial assistance number is big, Weber said that is not the biggest responsibility the agency has.

“I think probably the most altruistic part of our services is helping guide veterans through the morass of community services and the VA — the requirements, the stipulations and regulations of other government agencies including the VA — to help the veteran achieve his or her benefits that are due them,” he said.

After years of arguments over whether the veterans board should advertise to get the word out about their services, the board is planning to spend more than ever next year with $160,000 budgeted for advertising.

The board, in partial partnership with the Warren County veterans board, has been running radio ads and recently branched out into digital platforms. Bier said something new they are considering for next year is a Cincinnati Reds campaign that would include baseball game tickets.

MORE: Butler County Veterans Board caps its own salaries

Payroll is also always a big number and Bier pencilled in $655,401 for base wages for next year, which includes a five percent across the board bump for employees — the commissioners capped their own pay at $8,868 a couple years ago. The budget directive from the county’s Finance Director Tawana Keels asked all departments to hold raises to two percent and not include incentive pay — for now.

Bier said blanket raises will not be given and no one has gotten a five percent increase in the agency that she can recall. She said the commissioners wanted some flexibility.

“The board chose to put that five percent across the board, so that when it does come time for pay increases and incentive pay, they have the option and we have the funding to do that,” she said.

As the veterans board is an autonomous body the county commissioners cannot dictate spending. But when the commissioners have asked the board to take some cuts in past years they have.

The entire county tax budget will be passed in June.

Veterans can reach the Veterans Service Commission at 513-887-3600 for the Hamilton office and 513-425-8600 in Middletown.

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