County veterans office meets its mission
The relatively young Kent County Department of Veterans’ Affairs has been meeting its lofty goals, and a number of county commissioners are pleased with the results.
When it replaced the county’s Soldiers and Sailors Relief office in Sept. 2008, the KCDVA was given a diverse list of goals and objectives that ranged from increasing the awareness of services available to county veterans to filing at least 120 claims on their behalf each quarter.
After Carrie Jo Roy, who manages the department, updated county commissioners recently on the office’s progress, a few board members made their feelings known.
Commissioner Michael Wawee said more veterans are now aware of the benefits to which they’re entitled. “The response time and care for veterans you’ve provided — I can’t say enough good about it. You are making a difference,” he said.
“The turnaround that you’ve done in that office is incredible,” said Commissioner Stan Ponstein.
County commissioners have discussed various ways to fund services for needy servicemen and women for more than a year. About a year ago, the board kicked around the idea of putting a small millage request of 0.01 mills in front of voters to provide that funding. However, instead of going that route, the county agreed last September to add an additional $100,000 to the office’s budget, money that came from general operations.
KCDVA began the current fiscal year with a budget of $262,133, up from the $169,509 it had last year.
Roy took over the department just prior to the start of 2010 as the office’s sole full-time employee. She said currently she has three part-timers who each work 20 hours per week and she tries to have at least two interns on board at all times.
“We found there is a lot of confusion regarding veterans’ benefits. But we have been successful,” she told commissioners. “We are rapidly outgrowing our office,” she added. The office is located at 82 Ionia Ave. NW.
Roy also told commissioners the office has awarded county veterans nearly $3.58 million in federal funds in roughly a two-year period. “This is not an estimate,” she said of the dollar amount. She added that figure didn’t include the $1.78 million vets received through the office in retroactive lump-sum payments.
“These figures grow continuously as we assist more veterans,” said Roy, who is a graduate of Cornerstone University and a veteran.
Here are a few other figures she shared with commissioners:
**The office’s average rate of annual growth for the past three years has been 28.6 percent.
**The return on investment from the general fund dollars the county committed to the office to assist veterans with their claims has been an impressive 2,155 percent from 2010 to this month.
**The increase in emergency need requests the office has received has risen by 58 percent over the past year, while the rise in appointments with vets seeking benefits went up by 34 percent from 2010 to 2011 and by 10 percent from 2011 through today.
“These benefits don’t just help our veterans; these help our community,” said Roy, who came to the office from the county’s Community Development Department, of the cash vets spend throughout the county.
Commissioner Shana Shroll said employees at six Cascade Engineering plants decided to raise money for the office after Roy told them of the growing needs of veterans. Tim Thomas, senior purchasing manager for the company, reached out to the firm’s workers, suppliers and associates and asked them to donate to the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Fund.
The effort raised nearly $17,000, some of which will be used to help honorably discharged war veterans who are facing evictions stay in their homes and prevent their utilities from being shut off.
But that effort didn’t stop with the cash donation. The Cascade Engineering employees helped a veteran and her two children furnish their new apartment and get other vital items the family needed. They had been homeless. The workers also assisted the widow of a Vietnam veteran make roof and window repairs to her home.
Almost a year ago, Cascade Engineering partnered with Compass Point Labor Management to reduce the high unemployment rate among veterans across the region.
“At Cascade, we are very proud of their service to our country and want to do what we can to help them find employment when they return home to the West Michigan community,” said Kelley Losey, director of Cascade Engineering’s Quest Sustainable Solutions consulting group, last September.
“We are fortunate to have such generous, caring people living and working in Kent County,” said Wayman Britt, assistant county administrator. “Our veterans sacrificed for us, so when they are in need, we need to help them.”