By ANGIE HOMOLA
Since leaving office I have been traveling to Olympia working on passing two bills. One is for the State Building Code Council to provide better tools for Washingtonians to meet energy reduction requirements and to pay for jurisdiction training and cost/ benefit analysis on construction codes.
The other, which I will detail here, is a continuation of unfinished business to help indigent veterans, a bill former Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen prime sponsored in 2012, and which died in the Senate.
If passed it would make the Veterans Assistance Levy a stand-alone tax, separate from the county General Fund Levy.
Aside from being a Navy wife, I became interested early on as a commissioner when a voucher came before me for payment to an indigent female veteran who had a husband with cancer and six young children.
It came with a denial recommendation from the Veterans Advisory Review Committee (VARC) with comments like “go get a job, this isn’t a free ride.”
I was astounded, but lacked support to overrule the recommendation because it was assumed that there was a safety net available. My children and I brought that family groceries, but they were evicted and displaced from their home.
I discovered Island County was the only county in the state that had a VARC, an extra layer between the Veterans Advisory Board (VAB) and the county commissioners. We replaced the VARC with a case manager and wrote policies and procedures on how to allocate the fund and how to connect veterans to support systems in our community.
The fund is intended to be used on a one-time, get-back-on-your-feet basis and is closely monitored. It provides for things like food, housing assistance, PTSD clinic transportation, gas to a job interview, and medicine. Island County went from serving five-10, to 80-100 deserving veterans per year.
Unfortunately, the state law intended to provide for veterans has structural glitches, so I went to work to fix it. This year, I generated wide bipartisan support in the Senate and Democratic support in the House to bring it back.
Statute (RCW 73.08.080) requires that 1.125 to 27 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on property be levied for the Veterans Assistance Fund. But the legislature stuck that levy inside the General Fund Levy, where it competes with deputies, elections, courts, public health, senior services, land use planning, etc.
If a county increases funding for vets, it has to decrease funding to other programs within the General Fund.
And just to make it even less serviceable, if there is so much as 1 cent of the fund left in the bank on the first Tuesday in September, the county does not have to collect the vet fund that year or subsequent comparable years. Essentially, the vet fund subsidizes the General Fund. This does not help vets. Until 2009 Island County levied its vet fund about every three years, meaning we paid less than a dollar a year for indigent veterans.
If the levy stood alone, you would see it as a line item on your property tax bill, like schools, cemetery, and library districts. Roughly $2.80 would be added to your property taxes annually or during the years it was levied.
Island County’s General Fund Levy costs most property owners about $12 a month or $145.00 a year, the lowest in the state (we are the sixth highest wage earners and we have the lowest poverty rate).
By comparison, the recent Oak Harbor school levy will cost the average Oak Harbor property owner an additional $22 a month totaling $41 or $495 a year. Representative Norma Smith and Senator Barbara Bailey both supported this increase, as did I.
I regret that neither of our State Representatives or Senator have supported the Veterans Assistance Levy bills (HB 1759 - SB 5490). With misconstrued evidence they believe the levy already takes care of vets, and that a stand-alone would be too expensive.
Worse yet, Snohomish County was audited and found to be levying less than the minimum required for vets. Rather than increase the levy or cut costs (not easy) they have proposed a bill to permit reduction in the minimum veterans’ assistance levy rate.
Barbara Bailey prime sponsored the Senate bill (SB 5418) and Dave Hayes, who originally supported my bill, withdrew his sponsorship and shifted to Snohomish’s House bill (HB1432). The laws are complicated, but we should expect our elected officials to understand them and to meet the legislative intent to care for veterans. It’s been a Washington State priority since 1888.
Whether you believe in war or not, our nation sends men and women to battle. Some are now indigent vets from Vietnam and many more are coming home broken, and they need our help. I’m happy to contribute a quarter a month, so I will keep fighting for my bills to pass and I hope you will too.
Note: Angie Homola is a former Island County Commissioner.