In addition to creating a new general operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Kent County Finance Committee is trying to decide how to properly fund the Veterans’ Affairs Department.
The county has about 35,000 veterans — the fourth highest in Michigan — and is expecting that number to grow. A recent county subcommittee report showed Kent County only spends $8 annually for each veteran, the least of any county in the state. The same subcommittee recommended that the commission increase the department’s funding from general operations to $350,000 next year.
This year the department is receiving $296,000, nearly 13 percent more than the $262,000 it received in general funds the previous fiscal year. And this year’s figure is up by 73 percent from the $170,851 the office was allocated two fiscal years ago.
The Finance Committee recently delved into a more permanent type of funding source for the department than continuing to raise the office’s fiscal support from the general operating fund. At their last meeting, however, committee members didn’t disregard doing that, although some sort of millage funding was mostly looked at as the new source.
One option would be for the county to levy its state-authorized limit of 4.32 mills, which is 0.0397 mills more than its current operating millage. The increase would generate $770,000 more in property-tax revenue for the general fund and it would give the commission more money to give the department.
Commissioner Dick Vander Molen said the levy didn’t necessarily have to be raised all the way to the legal limit. Instead, he said it could be bumped a bit to generate additional dollars for the office.
Another option is to enact a levy of 0.10 mills exclusively for veterans’ assistance. The state has given all counties the right to do that through a law that has been on the books since 1899, so it wouldn’t need approval from voters. Bureau of Equalization Director Matt Woolford said the millage would generate about $2 million every year, so allocations from general operations to the office wouldn’t be necessary.
However, there is a catch in going that route. Assistant County Administrator Wayman Britt pointed out that the dollars raised from this levy could only be used to help indigent war-era veterans and their legal dependents, so not all military vets living in the county would be eligible.
A third alternative is to put a 0.25 mills dedicated millage before voters, similar to the one the county has for seniors. Passage of such a millage would raise $500,000 for the office annually; that is the figure the county feels the veterans office needs to operate effectively.
“The monies that are currently budgeted through the general fund will be returned to the general fund if an operating millage is passed. However, the board of commissioners can chose to continue funding the department with general fund dollars as well as the operating millage,” said Britt.
“An operating millage of .025 mills will generate a little over $500,000 annually. This will provide approximately $200,000 more than is currently provided by the general fund and will allow for an increase in staff as well as accommodate increased service requests,” he added.
Instead of going forward with a dedicated millage, members of the committee wondered what it would mean for the county if it just allocated another $200,000 from the general fund to the $296,000 it already gives the department to bring its budget to the $500,000 mark.
Britt said doing that for a year wouldn’t have a negative effect on the county’s AAA bond rating, but he added it could negatively impact the top credit rating if the county’s general fund ran deficits for several years.
The general fund money the commission has allocated the office has been able to leverage additional dollars. Britt said for every general fund dollar that went to the department last year, $17.33 was returned to the county in compensation and pension benefits.
“I would like to see a few more services added, but that’s for another time,” said Carrie Jo Roy, who directs the Veterans’ Affairs Department.
Vander Molen said he didn’t want the funding discussion and the subcommittee’s report to leave county residents with the impression that veterans aren’t being taken care of. Besides the county, he said there are other agencies coming to their assistance.
“We don’t want to make implications that our vets aren’t getting services because they are.”