Carrie Roy says the new location for Kent County’s Department of Veterans Affairs will make it easier for veterans to access the facility. Photo by Michael Buck
Kent County’s Department of Veterans Affairs, which has expanded since voter approval of a millage increase in November, will be moving in March from its current downtown location at 82 Ionia Ave. NW to Fuller Avenue at the Kent County government complex in northeast Grand Rapids.
The building at 836 Fuller Ave. NE, close to the intersection with Bradford Street NE, is vacant and was formerly the home of the Area Community Services Employment & Training Council. County officials said it will better accommodate aging and disabled military veterans with: on-site parking, including handicap spaces steps from the main entry; a ground level office; more square footage; and an entry without security screening, which at 82 Ionia proved to be “challenging” for vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The cost to retrofit 836 Fuller for KCDVA is estimated at $90,000, with the money coming from unused Capital Improvement Project funds allocated for 2014 projects.
Carrie Roy, manager of KCDVA, said there will now be five full-time employees and a couple of volunteers. Once the outreach program is underway — a public awareness campaign to make sure all county veterans are familiar with the free services — more vets will come for help and more employees for the department may be required.
Roy said the department has been serving about 1,700 veterans a year, but advocates of the expanded service have said many more would seek its services if they were aware of them.
A main service of the department is helping military veterans apply for the many federal benefits to which they are entitled.
Voters in November approved an additional 0.050 mills on the county tax rate, which will raise slightly more than $1 million in additional funds for veterans services, or the equivalent of $5 per year additional tax on the owner of a $200,000 home. The county had been budgeting $300,000 each year and the Kent County Board of Commissioners decided not to remove those dollars, even with the dedicated millage revenue that will be added. The veterans millage will continue through 2021.
The Kent County veterans’ assistance office had just one full-time employee until 2012, when three half-time employees were added to help with the workload, bringing the staff count to 2.5 full-time equivalent employees. The full-timer was Roy, who was hired as manager in 2009. She is a veteran of the U.S. Army who was disabled due to a training accident.
A county board subcommittee studied veterans’ services and reported that, as of 2013, Kent County was spending about $8 per veteran while Oakland County spent $27. Livingston County spent $55 and Grand Traverse/Leelanau counties spent $45. Kent County, however, has the fourth largest veteran population in Michigan, estimated at 36,000.
Roy said the number of vets served each year by the department had been increasing by about 20 percent, and that was with “very minimal outreach” to let vets know of the department’s existence.
“We are going to ramp up our outreach,” said Roy, who anticipates the number they serve could double or triple.
Prior increases in vets served followed publicity about the department in the local news media, according to Roy.
Roy said the department is working on a plan for a public communication campaign, but it is too soon to reveal any specific details about it.
“You’ll start seeing some outreach soon,” said Roy.
It may include a combination of tactics such as billboards, mailers, posters at veterans’ association facilities and at hospitals and medical clinics.
“We want our name where veterans go,” said Roy. “They go everywhere.”
She said the campaign would use social media, but she couldn’t say how much, if any, would be spent on advertising media. Public service announcements and other coverage by radio are under consideration.
“We don’t want to spend millage dollars on campaigns” involving professional firms “when we still have in-house” communication experts within the county government, said Roy.
Roy has appeared on Shelley Irwin’s WGVU “Morning Show” on public TV, talking about the work done by the KCDVA. She was also interviewed on a nationally syndicated radio program focused on U.S. military veterans’ issues. She spoke about “service officers,” meaning the individuals who are employed to help vets navigate the myriad state and federal laws involving veterans’ benefits.
“There are hundreds of laws regarding veterans’ benefits,” she said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all” situation, but rather requires study of the laws and keeping up with the changes in those laws.
“So we’re there to help them do that,” she said.