County aid for veterans denied, inaccessible locally

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Local veteran talks about difficulty getting assistance

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Montgomery County turned away a higher percentage of veterans seeking emergency financial assistance for things such as rent, utilities or groceries than any county in Ohio last year except Butler, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

Greene County turned down very few, but had less than 1 percent of the county’s veteran population even ask for aid — the second lowest in the state. It spent nearly as much on the salary of its director, assistant director and five appointed commissioners as on direct aid to veterans.

County veterans service commissions are given broad discretion and vastly varied resources in delivery of benefits to veterans, meaning American veterans who fought in foreign lands such as Da Nang, Kandahar or the South Pacific have different access to help depending on whether they returned home to Xenia, Dayton or Hamilton.

Michele Palmer of Washington Twp. has fought with Veterans Affairs for years to get assistance for her father, who drove Sherman tanks in World War II. He had a debilitating stroke in 2012. She didn’t even know Montgomery County had such an office, and was appalled by its high denial rate.

“I think that’s godawful,” she said. “We’re handing (money) to people who get out and have illegitimate kids, but a guy that’s dodging bullets and asking for help doesn’t get it?”

The Daily News analyzed Ohio’s 88 county veterans service commissions following a recent study that pointed out that the property tax-funded system has led to affluent counties with more money than they need and poor counties lacking the resources to help veterans.

But how counties spend their money varies widely as well, especially in terms of emergency financial assistance provided by counties to help veterans get through financial crises.

Miami most generous

All 88 counties combined spent a total of $19.8 million on emergency aid in 2012, according to state records. But each county decided how much to budget for this cost and how lenient to be with applicants.

One of the most generous was Miami County, which spent 69 percent of its $890,000 budget on financial assistance. The small, mostly rural county spent more than 80 counties and OK’d more applications for aid than Montgomery and Greene counties combined.

Statewide, the percentage of each county agency’s budget spent on aid ranged from Miami County at the top to Harrison County with 7 percent. Butler County spent only 13 percent of its veterans service budget on aid.

Miami County Veterans Service Commission President Joe Goetz said his agency is becoming more strict. Within the past year it began limiting veterans to three applications for up to $700 a year each. Previously, he said, some people came in every month for hundreds of dollars. The county also set a lifetime maximum of $10,000 and started giving out food vouchers instead of cash for groceries.

Clark County, by contrast, lets people apply as often and for however much they want, but scrutinizes applications, giving it the 10th-highest denial rate in the state.

“It’s for short-term emergency situations, (when) you’ve gotten into an emergency, not a case where you’re over-extended and you need help every month, because we can’ t do that,” said Clark County Veterans Service Director Cathy Ater.

Vets are taxpayers, too

Nearly every month, several people appeal denials for emergency aid issued by staff to the Montgomery County Veterans Commission board. Discussions are held behind closed doors, but meeting minutes show nearly two-thirds of the staff denials are overturned by the 11-member board.

“It probably sounds like we’re stingier than we are, but I don’t think you can find a single commissioner that would say we want to deny people,” said commission president David Fierst.

Fierst, an Army veteran, said in addition to helping needy veterans, he tries to remember that veterans are taxpayers, too, “so they have an interest in us properly administering the funds as well.”

“If we spent every dime that we got they’d be asking us what it was for, are you evaluating these cases properly, so that’s the flipside of the question,” he said, explaining that the goal is to provide emergency help, not ongoing financial assistance.

Fierst said they could help more veterans if the state would take the lead in helping them find and identify veterans.

Veterans respond

E. J. Keiter went to the Montgomery County veterans service commission Wednesday to appeal a denial of about $1,000 he says he needs for back rent to stay in his Belmont apartment. The Army veteran goes to Sinclair Community College full time after losing his job, but the financial aid he receives is not enough to make ends meet. He said the board asked him to re-apply.

He said counties should have standards, but they shouldn’t vary based on where you live.

“Just because you are a veteran and ask for assistance I don’t think you should get it because there are those individuals who try to game the system,” he said.

Warren County has a low denial rate and a large budget for its county veterans agency.

But David Robinson said he has repeatedly been denied transportation to the VA Medical Center in Dayton from his Franklin home. The Marine Corps veteran tried to get help from the Warren County office to apply for VA claims as well, he said, but it was a hassle.

“I just slashed them off and said I’m not going to argue every time I need help,” he said. “Why should I feel like I have to pull somebody’s teeth to help me when they’re getting taxpayer money to help?

“There have been times I really regretted serving this country with the way veterans are treated.”

Greene Co. helps few

Administrators from several counties said they spend enough to meet veterans’ needs, and would spend more if more were needed.

“We try to be more than fair, if not generous, with our veterans, as far as their needs,” said Greene County Deputy Veterans Service Director Chris Chrystal.

The average veteran who received assistance in Greene County got help valued at $1,397, which is the fourth highest in the state. Statewide average assistance ranges from $2,513 per application in Putnam County to $33 per application in Monroe County.

But Greene County only processed 115 financial aid applications last year — less than 1 percent of the county’s total veteran population of 16,767. The only county that processed aid for a smaller percentage of veterans was Delaware County.

Chrystal said the reason for this is demographics.

“(Greene County veterans) just actually don’t need the assistance,” he said. “They seem to be doing real well.”

Greene County is home to between 471 and 1,129 veterans living below the poverty level, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Greene County spent $160,716 on financial aid to veterans last year. Most of its budget went to personnel who handle the office’s other two main functions: helping people apply for federal aid, and transporting people to VA hospitals.

The county’s staff consists of six office workers and three drivers. They are overseen by a deputy director who makes $62,524 a year. He reports to a director who makes $74,692 a year, who reports to five appointed commissioners who each make an average of $4,000 a year.

This means Greene County spends only $3,172 more on emergency aid than it does on administrator and board salaries.

“Our commissioners, unfortunately, are paid much lower than the average veteran service commissioner,” Chrystal said.

$1K for one meeting

The Daily News acquired a survey conducted by Clermont County examining veterans service commissioner pay in select counties. That study found that monthly pay to attend one meeting a month ranged from $300 to $1,000.

Veterans service commission board members also qualify for the state pension system in many counties, and in some counties such as Clark receive county health insurance and other benefits.

“I’d say those people are a little bit overpaid,” said Bob Bailey, 90, who works a part-time job up to three days a week. His only other source of income is Social Security.

The Warren County resident served in WWII as a salvage and repair diver in the Navy.

Bailey said he didn’t even know there were county veterans services agencies before reading about them in this newspaper. He believes the assistance a veteran gets should be based on what they need, not where they live.

“I think if the guys need $3,000 to $4,000, they ought to get it. If they need $20, they ought to get it.”