Millions earmarked for vets doesn’t go to them

Clark, Champaign counties more efficient than most counties.

Dozens of county veterans agencies across Ohio allowed millions of dollars earmarked to help needy veterans go toward other county services last year, according to a new state report.

The issue was highlighted in a $98,000 study completed late last year and obtained by the Springfield News-Sun that showed some of Ohio’s biggest counties don’t use millions they’re entitled to from county property taxes for veterans while some smaller counties barely have enough money to help their local vets.

In all, Ohio’s 88 counties spent nearly $60 million, a little more than half, of the $115.5 million in county property taxes they’re able to claim. Of that, agencies spent roughly $21 million giving emergency financial assistance to 52,000 of Ohio’s struggling veterans in 2013. An estimated 878,000 veterans live in the state.

Clark County provided emergency financial assistance to 250 veterans in 2013, spending 88 percent of the money allotted for that service. The veterans service commission’s total budget for the year was $806,042, of which about 4 percent, or $32,705, remained unspent.

County veterans agencies collect a small portion — a 0.5 mill — from county property taxes every year to give money to veterans who need helping pay bills or buying food, provide assistance with navigating federal and state benefits available to veterans, and help vets get transportation to and from appointments at VA medical centers.

Champaign, Clark more efficient than most

Large counties, including Montgomery, Butler and Hamilton counties, have greater property tax collections and more veterans. But those counties also often spend less than half of their share of the property tax and return the rest of the money to their county’s general fund.

Meanwhile, less populated counties situated in rural areas collected far less in property taxes, but used nearly every dollar they were given on veterans.

Champaign County’s veterans service commission spent all but about $2,600 of its budget in 2012 and actually went $14,286 over its allocated budget in 2013.

“We try not to overspend,” Director Buzzy Moore said.

The annual budget for the commission is set by Champaign County commissioners each year and doesn’t account for the total generated by the property tax. The tax generated more than $412,000 for use in 2013, but the commission only asked for about $185,000.

County commissioners have been willing to allocate more money when the demand is there, Moore said.

The increase in spending by the commission in 2013 came from new transportation costs, Moore said. Champaign County Transit provides busing for veterans to VA medical centers in Dayton, Columbus and Springfield, and was previously undercharging the commission for those rides.

“Our transportation costs went up last year, which is understandable,” Moore said.

He said the number of veterans who apply for and receive emergency financial assistance has been pretty steady the past few years — 150 individuals in 2012 and 151 in 2013. But the veteran population in the county declined by 66 people over that time period.

“The economy has been rough,” Moore said.

Most veterans who apply for the emergency assistance do so once or twice, but they’ve seen some people who consistently find themselves in need of help with rent and utilities.

The Clark County Veterans Service Commission doesn’t ask for the whole amount generated by the millage either, according to Clark County Commissioner Rick Lohnes.

“I don’t know how they would spend it all,” Lohnes said.

The Clark County veterans agency is very conscientious about their spending, he said. “They make the most out of what they get.”

The Clark agency left about 8 percent of its budget unused in 2011 and 2012, according to numbers reported to the state.

No plans for action

The Ohio Department of Veteran Services, which has no authority over the 88 county veterans service commissions, last year commissioned the taxpayer-funded study, which noted the disparity in funding from county to county.

Officials with the state veterans agency, however, can’t dictate how much funding each county veterans agency gets, Ohio Department of Veterans Services spokesman Michael McKinney said last week.

“The director reviewed (the study) and there are no current plans to take action concerning it,” McKinney said, in an email.

The law that set the half-mill tax is old, Lohnes said, dating back to the 1880s when it was enacted to aid Civil War veterans.

Lohnes, an Air Force and Air National Guard veteran, said he’s questioned if the need still exists for that amount of money.

“If it’s not being used, why not change it,” he said.

Other county programs do benefit from the money that goes unused by the veterans service commission, Lohnes said, to the point where there would be a ripple effect throughout the county if that money was suddenly unavailable.

Raising awareness

The annual report for 2013 also reveals a disparity in the number of veterans who got emergency aid from their county veterans office.

Affluent Warren County, for example, is home to roughly 16,000 veterans but helped nearly three times as many veterans as neighboring Butler County and nearly as many as Montgomery County, both of which boast bigger veterans populations. The Warren County agency handed out money 610 times to those vets who asked for help last year, according to the report.

Officials at the Warren County Veteran Service Commission have stepped up efforts to advertise the agency in recent years, Director Rodney Eversole said. His agency asked for a more than $500,000 increase in funding this year. That money will primarily be spent on radio ads for the agency and a new mobile office for agency workers to go to stores, festivals and nursing homes to meet with veterans.

“To me, there’s a direct correlation between awareness and the amount of veterans that we help,” Eversole said. “A lot of veterans don’t know we exist and it’s up to the individual county to get the word out.”

Clark County is aggressive in getting the word out, Lohnes said.

In April, 30 Clark County veterans applied for assistance with the commission and 29 were approved. So far in 2014 the county has spent nearly $63,000 on financial services for local vets which is on track to match last year’s spending.

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