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State committee hears Whidbey’s veterans needs
The relationship between Whidbey Island Naval Air Station and the community of Oak Harbor took center stage Friday at a presentation before members of the Washington State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Veterans’ and Military Affairs Friday at the Oak Harbor Library.
Three of the committee’s 16 members, including Rep. Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor), Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) and Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island), began their day on Whidbey Island with a tour of the Navy base before hearing presentations and public comment at the library.
“Committee members are trying hard to get out and tour our military installations,” Bailey told the audience of about 40 people. “We are focusing on the economic impact the military has on our communities and what the military means to the economy.”
Bailey said many members of the bipartisan committee didn’t realize the military is one of the top economic drivers in Washington, adding that Friday’s visit was a chance to find out what is going on in Island County in regard to veterans affairs.
Oak Harbor City Council member Beth Munns was the first to present, sharing with committee members the unique relationship that exists between NAS Whidbey and the city.
“It’s not them against us,” Munns told the committee. “This is a collaboration that goes on every day in many ways and I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Munns highlighted several ways in which the city and Navy work together, including joint community events like the annual Military Appreciation Picnic, the Fourth of July parade, Sailor and Marine of the Year luncheons and the recent 10th anniversary observance of 9/11.
“This partnership even extends to police and fire protection,” Munns said. “In cases of domestic abuse, for instance, the military police will call in someone from Oak Harbor to assist in the investigation. Likewise, if there was to be a bomb scare at the high school, city officials would call the base, because they have the equipment to deal with it.”
Bailey asked Munns about the state’s role in the collaboration between the Navy and the city.
“When you are providing police and fire protection with no reimbursement, it can make a difference,” Munns acknowledged, referring to the fact there is no tax revenue collected from federal property. “As revenue in the city continues to decrease, and we’re down about 12 percent this year, it will become harder to manage until the economy picks up again.”
Decreases in Impact Aid and the education of military children were also on the agenda, and Oak Harbor School District Superintendent Rick Schulte was the next to address the committee.
Schulte focused on the Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children, which has been adopted by 43 states and is designed to make it easier for military children to transfer between school districts and states. Because the Oak Harbor School District has been dealing with the education of military children since the base opened, the district was already practicing many of the compact’s provisions and frequently answers questions for other school districts without as much experience with military children.
The Navy has also provided the school district with a big advantage, according to Schulte.
“I believe our military families are a huge strength,” he said. “The student body is diverse, the military students have traveled all over the world and they all get along. Schools in neighboring districts are far less diverse.”
One issue Schulte did bring up was the Navy’s Exceptional Family Member program for special needs children. Overall, about 11.8 percent of the student body has special needs, which Schulte said is fairly consistent across the state.
“Even though the total percentage is consistent with the state, the incidence of severely disabled, higher needs children is higher,” Schulte said. “And the more severe needs students are Navy-connected.
“There are times when we have to pay to send students to other districts because we do have to address the unique needs of those with severe disabilities,” he continued.
Navy spouse Anita Giannaris addressed that issue with the committee during the public comments at the end of the meeting. She said there is a higher incidence of severely disabled children in Oak Harbor because NAS Whidbey is designated an Exceptional Family Member Category 5 base, meaning Navy families with the most severely disabled and highest special needs children are sent here. She said the designation needs to be changed.
“We are too remote. We don’t have the facilities here to meet those needs,” Giannaris said. “I don’t think we should be a Category 5 base.”
The last official presentation for the committee was from Island County Veteran Services coordinator, Gerald Pfannenstiel, who gave an overview of the veterans services provided by the county to indigent veterans, such as food and fuel vouchers and assistance with rent, utilities or medications.
“We’ve also added case management to the Veterans Assistance Fund,” he said. “One thing we do that no one else does,” he continued, “is we will pay for school clothing and school supplies for the children of indigent veterans.”
Pfannenstiel was joined by Island County Commissioner Angie Homola, who briefed committee members on her desire and efforts to separate the money for the Veterans Assistance Fund from other county funds.
“I am hopeful and will work closely with the state Legislature to get that measure passed,” Homola said. “There will be a lot of folks coming home and we want to be able to help them.”
South Whidbey Island resident Paulette Becker also expressed her concern for current members of the military and the number of deployments they have been expected to do.
“I am here today to ask for support for limiting deployments or instituting a draft,” she said. “There is a huge disconnect between the general population and the pain of our military men and women coming home.
“When you have been in combat, you are a changed person,” Becker continued. “We have to do a better job at home of meeting those needs.”
In the end, committee members expressed their thanks for all the topics and viewpoints presented to them, promising to bring them to the attention of other members of the Legislature.