Kent County prepares for expanded services for veterans
Some individuals are critical of how the millage revenue will be spent.
Hiring of additional staff is underway in Kent County, as is the search for a new home for the county’s office of veterans services, the result of the successful millage vote in November.
The proposal tacks an additional 0.050 mills on the county tax rate, which will raise slightly over $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.
At the county commissioners’ Dec. 4 meeting, one of the 19 commissioners voted against hiring additional staff for the veterans’ services office, and the chair of the county’s volunteer Veterans Affairs Committee also objected to some of the costs that will come out of the millage revenue.
District 7 Commissioner Stan Ponstein said he can’t see hiring more employees on the veterans’ services staff “right off the bat.” He said the county should determine all the unmet needs of the veterans before spending the money on more employees.
“At the end of the day, it’s the taxpayers’ money,” said Ponstein.
Paul Potter, chair of the independent Veterans Affairs Committee, objected to part of the revenue being put in the county’s cost allocation budget. He is also opposed to some of it being diverted to the “tax capture” districts in the county municipalities, as established by state law.
County officials explained that cost allocation is applied to every county program funded by special revenues, to cover shared costs of county administration — costs the county must ultimately pay for, including human resources, accounting, payroll, office space, IT, etc.
The cost allocation applied to the expanded veterans services will be $130,000 in the first year, representing 10 percent of the expected budget of $1.3 million for the expanded services.
Assistant Kent County Administrator Wayman Britt told the Business Journal later that if it is determined a year from now that veterans’ services require less administrative services than other special-funded programs, the cost allocation figure will be reduced.
Britt noted the Kent County’s veterans’ services office had been budgeted $300,000 each year lately, and the county board “has decided not to remove those dollars, even with the millage passed.”
The actual November ballot language states that the “Dedicated Millage for Veterans Services” will be added to county property tax bills from 2014 through 2021, to provide dedicated services to veterans and their dependents. It states there are 27 local authorities — downtown development authorities and brownfield redevelopment authorities in the county’s municipalities — that will capture a portion of the veterans’ millage levy. The captured tax increment revenue in the first calendar year is estimated to be $34,577, according to the ballot question.
In prior years, the county veterans’ office had just one full-time employee. Around 2012, said Britt, three half-time employees were added to help with the workload, bringing the staff count to 2.5 FTEs (full-time equivalent employees).
With passage of the veterans millage in November, the county plans to make the part-timers full time, plus add one more full-time equivalent, bringing the staff count to five full-time employees.
Britt said there is “at least a week backlog” currently of veterans who have applied for county help in applying to the Veterans Administration for compensation benefits they are qualified to receive.
An expanded outreach program is expected to increase the number of veterans turning to the county for help, and “we don’t want that (backlog) to grow to two weeks or three weeks,” said Britt.
He added the county is prepared to approve the hiring of even more staff, if the demand for services requires it. “So this could be seven, instead of five” employees by the end of 2015, said Britt.
County officials point to the return on investment in veterans’ services, in terms of federal funds coming into the county as more trained staff are added to help vets effectively apply for benefits.
Britt said the data collected by the County Board of Commissioners Veterans Affairs Sub-Committee in June 2013 indicates that for every full-time equivalent Veterans Services Officer in the Kent County office there is an estimated return of $974,000 in annual federal VA benefits.
As Kent County increased its veterans’ services staff in recent years, Britt said, “We went from ranking 72nd of the 83 counties in 2012, to 43rd of 83 in 2013, in terms of federal dollars being brought in.”
The subcommittee report states that as of 2013, Kent County was spending about $8 per veteran, while its next closest peer, Oakland County, spent $27. Livingston County spent $55 per veteran while Grand Traverse/Leelanau counties spent $45. Kent County, however, has the fourth-largest veteran population in Michigan, estimated at 36,000 currently.
Britt said additional square footage of office space will be required by the addition of staff members to veterans’ services. The office is currently at 82 Ionia Ave. NW in Grand Rapids, but the county is now looking at a potential undisclosed location closer to the intersection of I-96 and U.S. 131, providing street level access and parking. The current offices on Ionia are a concern, he said, because physical access is not as easy as it should be for disabled vets and aging World War II-era veterans.
Britt said the cost of the new office space for veterans’ services will not come out of the dedicated millage revenues.