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Help for veterans found lacking

"Years ago, a famous military officer said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” More recently, some Island County veterans have been wondering if the same might be true for the county’s Veterans Relief Fund. The number of indigent, or below poverty level, war-era veterans helped by the fund has dropped over the last few years - from 73 veterans who received almost $25,000 in 1997 to 20 veterans who received $6,800 in 1999. Meanwhile, Island County’s relief fund balance exceeds $120,000 and the county has issued only one property tax levy to support it in the last four years. This, in a county with more than 10,000 veterans. Local vets are mobilizing, asking why the fund has so much while helping so few, and ultimately, looking to take a bigger role in helping administer it. On Jan. 8, more than 20 veterans representing Island County’s seven nationally chartered veterans organizations met at the VFW lodge on Goldie Road. They nominated representatives from five of the seven groups, who they hope will help administer the fund in the future, worked up a proposal to do so, and sent it to the Island County Commissioners for approval or discussion. “It’s in their laps now,” said veteran Al Siebecke. “In the meantime, we’ve got a policy and procedure.” But while county officials don’t necessarily object to more veteran involvement, they also point out that facts can be interpreted in many ways. Maybe the reasons Island County helps fewer vets, County Commissioner Bill Thorn said last Friday, is that, one, the county has fewer indigent vets than other places, and, two, not enough vets are getting the word out about it. The Veterans Relief Fund was established by Congressional charter in 1888 to provide financial aid for indigent military veterans of war. It is used by needy veterans and their widows, and collected and administered in counties throughout the United States. Typically, requests for money are evaluated, then administered by committees made up of vets representing nationally chartered veterans organizations like the VFW and Fleet Reserve. In Island County, however, it is administered by the county and supported by property tax levies. Currently, the reserves are flush, and the county hasn’t put forth a levy to support the fund since 1998. And compared to other counties with comparable veterans populations, Island County’s fund is being doled out to far fewer veterans. In 1999, for example, administrators of neighboring Skagit County’s Veterans Relief Fund spent more than $82,000, providing assistance more than 900 times to vets. That’s 12 times more than Island County distributed — but Skagit County holds only 12 percent more veterans than Island County does. Siebecke doesn’t blame Island County’s commissioners for the fund’s comparatively paltry contributions to needy vets, or the five-man committee they appointed to evaluate fund requests. “There’s no program in place to advertise the fund and it’s not widely known in the veteran organizations,” Siebecke said. “When you only get 20 vets, that means they’re not getting the word out.” Gordon “Skip” Hines, junior vice commander of Oak Harbor’s Disabled American Veterans organization, agrees. “We’re not saying the county has done a bad job. In fact, they’ve done a good job with the resources they’ve had,” Hines said. “We’re just trying to add more resources. We’re trying to provide more responsive service to veterans, and if we had more veterans involved, we could.” In 1991, Island County appointed a five-member Veterans Relief Committee to help evaluate requests for money from the Relief Fund. Hines said that part of the state law that created the five-member commission stated that the committee members represent the nationally chartered veterans’ organizations in that area. Commissioner Thorn said the state laws are somewhat ambiguous regarding the composition of the committee, but legislation mandated that it was the ultimate authority of the county to oversee the fund, and to determine who could draw upon it. “My understanding is that one or two of the committee members have been vets,” Thorn said. “They accept the input from one of the veterans groups, evaluate it and present it to us. “The function of that group looks essentially what they (Siebecke, Hines and others) are asking for and is in place.” Not exactly, said Hines. “They may have affiliations with the veterans organizations,” Hines said of the current committee. “But none of them were asked to represent those organizations.’’ Hines said on the western side of the state, only Island and San Juan Counties aren’t set up like this. What’s more, Hines said, Island County’s process of delivering the funds could be a lot simpler. Currently, Island County’s Veterans Relief Fund is administered by a four-tiered process: • Needy, eligible veterans approach a veterans organizations, have a relief package prepared for them. The package is then sent to Island County clerk, Don Mason. • Mason then forwards the package, by fax, to the five members of the county-appointed Veterans Assistance Review Committee. • The committee members weigh the merits of the request, make recommendations, then pass their evaluations back to the Island County Board of Commissioners. • The council members then decide whether to grant the request at their regular Monday meetings, and if approved, the money is sent along to the veteran’s creditors. “That can involve a long period of time from the vet showing up at the front door and getting help,” Hines said. “We’d like to see about developing a better way to deliver the funds.” “It does seem like an awful lot of steps,” Mason said. As for the lack of levies, Mason said Island County has asked for more property tax money only once in the past four years because it didn’t need any more. “Maybe if we’d had more request for funds, we would have,” he said. State law requires that if the fund balance — raised by a property levy of between approximately 1.125 cents and 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on property — already contains more than could be raised by a levy, the county doesn’t have to issue the levy. If a 1.125-cent levy was put forth in 2000, it would generate more than $69,000. But the fund balance as of Sept. 14, 1999, stood at about $120,000. Mason also said comparing Island and Skagit County’s veteran populations is not necessarily illustrative. “First there is a big difference between a target population of vets and indigent, wartime vets,” Mason said. “And Island County is an expensive place to live. It’s possible we have a lower population of indigent vets than Skagit County.” Siebecke maintains that Island County could still learn a thing or two from modeling the Skagit County method of managing the fund. In Skagit County, he said, the nationally chartered veteran organizations nominate members annually to serve on the veteran advisory committee. And, he added, there is a single contact point to provide assistance to the needy vet. A trained service officer and degreed social worker who has access to the other social services. The result, Siebecke said, is that Skagit County is more responsive, more effective and more timely in responding to its needy vets. Consequently more money goes out to help more vets. Hines said he also favors Skagit County’s system of actively networking with other social service agencies. The Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish and King county systems are all connected by modem. “Let’s get the service organizations involved,” Hines said. “Basically, these organizations are an alternative funding source.’’ On Island County, these agencies would include Island County’s Opportunity Council, Department of Health And Social Services, and Navy Relief. Mason said Island County does get referrals from other veterans agencies and social service organizations. “The Opportunity Council does outreach,” Mason said. ‘The county doesn’t do any significant outreach because that’s the venue of the social service organizations.” After the first meeting with the veterans, the County Commissioners recommended that the two groups meet again at a working staff meeting in February. Thorn, a Navy vet, said he had no objections to considering the veterans’ proposals, but that the commissioners haven’t had a chance to get together since they learned of them two weeks ago. And maybe, Thorn added, there is a better way to deliver funds to needy veterans. “It is not our intent in any way to stand in the way of that. The only question is the administration and the mechanics of getting it done,” Thorn said. “I think we’ve been as responsive and responsible as we can be. But we’re certainly open to a change if it’s necessary to assure that veterans in need are served, if that’s what it will take to get it done.” "

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