Saying they won’t jeopardize services for needy veterans, the Butler County Veterans Service Commission passed a 2021 tax budget that is outside cost-trimming guidelines the county commissioners have requested.
The vet board passed a $2.97 million spending plan for next year, which is $172,810 above the amount the county commissioners ordered in their tax budget guidelines.
The county commissioners have asked all office holders, department heads and independent boards to trim 4.14 percent from their approved budgets for this year and shave an additional 3.3 percent off the reduced figure for next year. County Administrator Judi Boyko has estimated a potential $20 million general fund shortfall due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The commissioners have agreed to empty the $12 million budget stabilization fund and use $1.5 million from a reserve fund that started the year with a $56 million balance to help close the revenue gap but still needed others to make reductions.
The vet board, an arm of county government, offers emergency cash, helps veterans navigate the Veterans Administration system, arranges and pays for transportation to medical appointments and finds local services for everything from legal issues to marriage counseling.
Executive Director Caroline Dineen reminded her board Wednesday they are an independent board and thus not mandated to make cuts. Board commissioner Bruce Jones, who was moderating the meeting via Facebook, said the county budget isn’t the only consideration.
“My feeling is we should be good patrons to the taxpayers as long as it doesn’t jeopardize the veterans,” Jones said. “If we can afford to give some kind of a cut, my feelings are we should do that as long as we’re not interfering with the needs of the veterans.”
To fully comply with the county directives the board would have had to cut $125,267 off the $3 million budget this year and an additional $95,717 from the 2021 tax budget. The various county agencies submit tax budgets to the commissioners in June, and final budgets are approved after October budget hearings.
Dineen was able to slice $50,000 off this year’s budget for transportation to medical appointments since so many visits have been canceled during the pandemic in favor of remote appointments with doctors. She said if the trend continues she will be able to reduce the $650,000 appropriation for next year, which will get the board closer to the county guidelines.
“Any reductions we did for the COVID response kind of went back up for next year primarily with the transportation, because we don’t know what that’s going to look like,” Dineen said. “I don’t want to reduce that until we know what next year’s transportation is going to look like.”
Dineen also cut $23,000 from travel and training and $26,000 in advertising. She did not cut emergency financial assistance this year but reduced it by $50,000 next year from $750,000 because the board spent $619,000 last year.
The number of people served has dropped from a high of 657 in January to 289 last month as face-to-face meetings have stopped.
“I think one of the issues may be that people did not think we were open. We’ve had, starting last Monday, phone calls asking, ‘Oh are you guys open now?’” she said, addingshe is surprised they have not had many requests for emergency financial assistance.
For next year, Dineen budgeted 3 percent raises and two new positions, a receptionist for the Middletown office and a peer mentor position for the Veterans Court. If those positions are not filled, the 2021 budget will be $2.87 million which is closer to the county commissioners’ target.
All of the vet board members agreed with the cuts.
The board is responsible for helping about 26,000 veterans and is funded by a percentage of the general fund millage the legislature carved out to help veterans. The board’s cut is around $3.87 million.
County Commissioner Don Dixon acknowledged the veterans routinely turn back unused dollars to the general fund. He said the fact the board did not strictly follow guidelines is not too concerning.
“They (the various offices) are all different, they all have different circumstances, we made it clear if they have any problems or special needs they need to run it through administration and we’d consider it,” Dixon said. “We know all budgets are not created equal, we’ll work it out.”
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