So much for the idea that this year’s budget process might turn out to be pretty smooth sailing.
At-large City Councilor Tim Rooke is threatening to vote against Mayor Domenic Sarno’s proposed budget unless there’s an increase in funding for the Veterans Services Department. His statements came after a budget meeting in which the department’s head, Tom Belton, said the office was understaffed and underfunded.
In a statement he sent to local media, Rooke said, “Anybody who wears a combat helmet and fights for their country should ever have to fight for a job, a roof over their head or for the care they need IF they come home.”
According to Rooke, the four-person department handles a caseload of 350 veterans, while, by way of comparison, Boston’s veteran services department has 17 workers handling 700 cases.
The administration’s proposed spending plan for fiscal 2015 calls for a $3.28 million budget for the department in the coming year. The bulk of that—just over $3 million—would be spent on financial and medical assistance for veterans and their families, in accordance with a state law that charges veterans’ services departments with providing that assistance, as well as helping vets apply for federal benefits and arranging for the burials of deceased veterans. The department also helps veterans find work, by providing computer workstations for job searches and holding monthly workshops, according to the budget document.
In a report on WGGB, Sarno suggested the problem lay with the department itself for failing to make its needs known to the administration. “The department head needs to make it known to the financial staff and myself, in formal, in a business type plan what is needed, what is the equivalent of money, why is it needed, what’s going to be done to scope the work. And we’re more than happy to continue to support our veterans department,” the mayor said.
Rooke, Sarno, chief financial officer T.J. Plante are expected to meet with the department next week to sort out the matter.
I’ve long wondered about the wisdom of municipal veterans’ service departments. Could the same services be provided more effectively and efficiently on the county or state level (assuming, of course, those larger departments operated effectively and efficiently)? It’s understandable, though, that veterans who rely on the services might find an office in their hometown easier to access, and perhaps staffed with familiar faces. In any case, in the light of recent revelations about deep failings in the federal Veterans Administration, coupled with increased attention to the number of new veterans returning to the country with PTSD (the topic, by the way, of a report on tonight's "Connecting Point") and other profound challenges, it’s hard to imagine that any politician or policy maker wants to be associated with cutting services to those who’ve served.