At their regular board meeting Thursday, Kent County commissioners received a long-awaited report from a subcommittee that looked into the current status of veterans in the county, along with two vital recommendations on how they could improve the lives of those who have served, are serving or will serve in the future.
Some of the report’s findings could be considered staggering.
The subcommittee found there were 34,938 veterans living in Kent County in 2011, while at the same time the county’s Department of Veterans Affairs had only 2.5 service officers on staff. That meant each service officer was responsible for meeting the needs of 13,975 military vets — the worst officer-to-client ratio among counties in Michigan.
The report also found the county will spend only $8 on each veteran this year, the lowest amount statewide. The DVA has a budget of $294,064 for this fiscal year, about $32,000 more than the $262,133 last year. The county also has budgeted $129,000 that goes directly for services.
The report revealed that much-smaller Livingston County will spend $690,933 this year on its 12,534 veterans, or $55 per vet. Livingston County has a population of 182,000.
The report also noted, however, that the department’s efforts have significantly impacted the lives of local veterans. Headed by director Carrie Jo Roy, the DVA has captured nearly $6.5 million in federal benefits that provided 469 veterans and their families with emergency relief over the past three years.
Last August, commissioners recognized the positive effect Roy has had on the small department.
“The turnaround that you’ve done in that office is incredible,” said Commissioner Stan Ponstein.
“You are making a difference,” added Commissioner Michael Wawee.
As for the report’s recommendations, the subcommittee urged commissioners to “strongly consider” increasing spending for veterans in the next general-fund budget by at least $50,000, to roughly $350,000 for FY14. The panel also suggested the county raise its direct spending on services to $155,000 next year, up by $26,000 from this year.
The subcommittee recommended that the county consider putting a millage request before voters next year to provide a constant source of revenue for veterans in need. A millage rate ranging from 0.25 mills to 0.5 mills was suggested, which would yield between $500,000 and $1 million annually based on this year’s property values.
Commissioners have begun their preliminary work on the 2014 operating budget and are expected to adopt a plan in November. The county’s administration and Executive Committee have been tracking potential millage requests for next year. A renewal of the senior millage should be on next year’s ballot in November.
The county’s DVS was established in 2008 to replace the longstanding Soldiers and Sailors Relief Fund. Then Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Steensma organized the veterans subcommittee in 2011 after commissioners decided to increase the DVA budget by $100,000 rather than put a millage request in front of voters.
Commissioner Shana Shroll chaired the subcommittee, which included Commissioners Harold Mast, Candace Chivis, Ted Vonk and Tom Antor.
“We have a lot of veterans out there that need assistance,” said Vonk. “I think we need to follow through on this.”