County Wants To Do More For Veterans

January 12, 2009
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In an effort to further help local military veterans with any problems they may encounter, including physical and mental health issues, Kent County opened a new department this month to specifically take on that task.

County commissioners established the Kent County Veterans’ Affairs Department with a unanimous vote in October and the agency made its official debut on New Year’s Day to become only the fifth department of its kind in the state.

The VA replaces the county’s Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Commission, which became a traditional stop for many veterans and their families after it opened more than a century ago in 1899.

In making the switch, commissioners agreed that a new department would bring greater attention to the needs that veterans have. They also felt that a local VA would be in a better position to organize and administer the programs the county has for veterans and would lead to a better public accountability of the funding and activities it makes available to the 37,891 veterans living in the county.

“We need a comprehensive approach to address the needs of veterans. We do a pretty good job already in Kent County. However, we recognize that there will be a growing need for services to veterans,” said Wayman Britt, assistant county administrator and point man for the department’s establishment.

“We are taking a very proactive approach to this concept of better coordination to ensure that we minimize the disconnects the veterans that we’ve assessed having been going through. On many occasions they have been bounced around when they’ve come for various services, and we want to minimize the frustration level that at times occurs with veterans,” he said.

Not only are the needs of veterans likely to grow and get more severe in the immediate future, the sheer number of veterans who may seek assistance could also get larger as the nation continues to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We’re seeing more and more veterans returning with conditions that probably require substantial medical attention, as well as mental-health issues that we’re seeing coming back from the wars,” said Britt.

“Fortunately, medical technology and the ability to deal with the trauma on the battlefield has improved and sustained the lives of veterans better than what previous wars had. So a lot of these people are coming back from the wars living. However, some are unfortunately experiencing very difficult, long-term medical issues that will require sustained support from wherever they can get it.”

The county has located the Veterans’ Affairs Department at 215 Straight Ave. NW in Grand Rapids. It’s a location veterans should be familiar with because it’s in the same building that housed the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Relief Commission.

Not all the services the county offers veterans are available at the site, at least for the short term. The county’s goal, though, is to ultimately have every service under one roof, there or elsewhere, to save veterans from having to go from pillar to post for services.

Britt said the new Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which commissioners will staff later this month, will evaluate the current location and advise the county on where the department should be and how it can achieve its goal of eventually becoming a one-stop stop. The county actively encourages local veterans to apply for a seat on the five-member committee.

The department has one full-time employee now, the same as the relief commission, but that number could change. The money for the new department is in the budget, about $205,000, as the county transferred the funds that were set for the relief commission to veterans’ affairs. Britt said nine counties in Michigan levy a dedicated millage to pay for a soldiers’ relief fund, but Kent doesn’t. That millage can’t exceed more than a tenth of a mill.

“Our economic condition is such that it requires us to do more with less. We have to find ways to streamline operations and to improve our ability to have an impact on the customers that we serve. That’s part of what we do here at Kent County,” he said.

Public Act 192 of 1953 gives the county the right to establish the department, so no further action is needed from the state. None is required from the federal government.

“We are simply acting on what is already in place,” said Britt.

In relation to other Michigan counties, Kent finds itself roughly in the middle of the pack for the amount of money that it budgets per veteran each year, $2.64, and the amount of federal dollars it secures per veteran each year, $1,866. And those figures are without the county having a Veterans’ Affairs Department. Britt said once the new agency gets a full head of steam going those numbers should get better and, more importantly, the county will be able to serve veterans and their families better.

“Not to take away from what our Soldier’s and Sailors’ Relief Office did. We have one person running that office and he did an admirable job. We simply want to do it better,” said Britt.

“We’re just saying, we know there is going to be an increased need and we know there is going to be a need for better coordination. OK, what is the best model to do that?” HQ

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