Veterans get more help from county

A program aimed at providing emergency assistance to indigent Island County veterans and their dependents recently got a makeover that should make the process quicker, easier and altogether better.

A program aimed at providing emergency assistance to indigent Island County veterans and their dependents recently got a makeover that should make the process quicker, easier and altogether better.

Island County Commissioner Angie Homola became concerned about the county’s Veterans Assistance Program in one of her first days on the job in January. A volunteer group called the Veteran’s Assistance Review Committee recommended that the commissioners deny a request for monetary assistance from a veteran who has six children and a wife with cancer. The Veteran’s Assistance Program, formerly the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Act, provides emergency funding to indigent veterans and their families.

Homola said she was concerned about some of the “inappropriate comments” from members of the volunteer board. She argued that the veteran’s request should be honored, but the other two commissioners chose to follow the board’s recommendation. The request was denied.

As a result, Homola investigated the program and decided to try to improve it.

“We are going to have many more veterans coming home from the war who need help,” she said.

It turns out that two different volunteer boards look into each request for assistance. The Veteran’s Assistance Board, required by state law, is made up of officials from nationally recognized veterans service organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Island County is the only county in the state with an extra level of volunteer bureaucracy, the Veteran’s Assistance Review Committee. Homola said the people on the Veteran’s Assistance Board had long tried to streamline the system and get rid of the extra board, but the former commissioners refused.

“The process was taking two or three weeks, which is too long when a veteran is facing eviction,” Homola said.

In addition, Homola found that there were other resources available to the veteran who had his request denied, but apparently nobody helped him find help.

But now the system has changed. Last week, the commissioners unanimously voted to move the Veteran’s Assistance Program from the General Services Department to the Human Services Department, which will not only administer the funds but assign a case manager to provide additional services and follow-up for veterans who need assistance. Gerald Pfannenstiel, a local veteran of veterans’ issues, currently holds the part-time, grant-funded position.

Last week, he thanked the commissioners for making the changes to the program. “We wanted to do this for a lot of years,” he said.

As of July 1, the Veteran’s Assistance Review Committee will be formally dissolved. The commissioners sent the members letters thanking them for their hard work over the years.

The next step, Homola said, is to change the way the fund is collected. Currently, the county levies a small property tax every few years to fund the program. She wants to make it an annual tax.

“It should be something we can rely on to keep the program going for the veterans,” she said.

The Veteran’s Assistance Program, formerly the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Act, provides emergency funding to indigent veterans and their families to pay for food, rent or mortgage, utilities, medical expenses and miscellaneous bills, such as the cost of burial.

To be considered indigent, the gross income of the veteran and all members of the household must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline. For a family of three, 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline is $27,465.

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