The Butler County veteran board’s goal is unlike any other county office, rather than cutting costs they want to spend as much money as possible helping veterans, hence a 16 percent budget increase to almost $3 million for next year.
Since 2016, when the board started advertising its services, the number of veterans served has skyrocketed. The board has helped almost 1,000 more veterans so far this year compared to the same time frame in 2015.
The budget for emergency financial assistance to veterans in 2015 was $590,000. This year the commissioners set that figure at $770,000. Executive Director Caroline Bier said she is fully expecting the county’s finance department to ask them to cut the number back — apparently they do every year — but veterans board commissioners said they won’t concede.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Commissioner Tom Jeffers said. “We’re not going to give that up.”
So far this year 484 vets have requested emergency cash and the board has doled out $531,314 to 434 people.
Another area Bier said the county usually asks them to pare down is advertising. The board began airing radio spots on four stations with a $27,000 ad buy in March 2016. Bier set the advertising and outreach budget at $176,000 next year.
The board heard presentations from iHeart Media and Cumulus Wednesday morning and local radio talk show celebrity Bill Cunningham on 700 WLW — Butler County ads are running on that station already — was there. He told the board he will do whatever he can to boost recognition of the veterans board and their services.
“Anything I can do to help you ladies and gentlemen I’m a 100 percent on this deal,” Cunningham said. “I’m not selling pillows here, I’m selling veterans services.”
Handing out emergency cash is only one aspect of what the veterans commission does. The board helps veterans navigate the Veterans Administration system to get medical help and other services, arranges and pays for transportation to medical appointments, and finds local services for everything from legal issues to marriage counseling.
Part of the reason the commissioners feel advertising is so important is a lot of veterans don’t know what their actual benefits are or how to get them. In addition, many, especially younger veterans, think they are “bulletproof.”
“The average vet when they come back from deployment is bulletproof,” Commissioner Dave Smith said. “Oh, there’s nothing wrong with me. Right, but there will be. Trust me, there will be something.”
Another big ticket item in the veterans board’s spending plan for next year are salaries at $680,881. Bier said she put in across the board five percent increases, but performance reviews will ultimately determine how big a raise an employee gets. She also budgeted in a new receptionist for the Middletown office and a peer mentor coordinator for the three veterans courts.
She noted that the county asked everyone to limit raises to two percent for now. She said she also planned for a 10 percent bump for health insurance — the county commissioners are in the process of perhaps switching health insurance carriers and the lowest rate increase under consideration is 14.3 percent.
Board President Chuck Weber said he fully supports the budget as is and understands the county finance department and commissioners might want cuts, but said the veterans board is in a different boat from the rest of the county.
“County management knows what to expect and to say two percent across the board,” Weber said. “What we’re doing is we’re growing because of our advertising and that is causing us to go in the opposite direction of the way they think. I’m not being critical it’s just (the way it is).”
The state legislature has carved out a percentage of county general funds for veterans and here that amount is around $3.4 million annually. Whatever isn’t spent reverts to the county general fund. Essentially though, because they are an independent board, the county commissioners can’t force cuts.