County hosts workshop on VSO position

Marty Mistretta and Jenna Sanchez, county VSOs, presented their case at a county budget workshop, for commissioners to continue funding their jobs and services in the courthouse.

Kerr County Judge Robert Kelly has proposed to eliminate the Veterans Service Office from the services currently provided at the courthouse, as a non-state-mandated service, when the 2020-21 (FY21) county budget is formed.

To get a report from the current VSOs and receive citizen comments, Kelly and three County Commissioners offered a workshop at the Hill Country Youth Event Center June 17.

Kelly made brief remarks as they started, saying he didn’t mean to be disagreeable but he’s having the same conversations with the volunteer fire departments and others, to spark a debate.

“We have a terrible economic disaster and it will impact the county in its property appraisals and tax collections (for revenue). And if we adopt a deficit budget, it will be another one after last year’s with a deficit of $2.7 million.”

Kelly said he considered micromanaging each department for “cuts,” and decided, especially under the pandemic, some functions are necessary and mandated by law, while others are “good works done for the good of the county.” And in the VFDs’ case, they have the option of legal Emergency Services Districts to use.

“I come to this today as the only veteran on this court, and this is near and dear to my heart. But this is not mandated as a federal government function. The feds and state have failed you.”

He highly praised the two VSO ladies and said this workshop meant no disrespect for veterans, but the county has a budget problem and they all have to solve this together.

He asked them to consider if some kind of 501(c)3 nonprofit supported by community fundraising and grants could do this work instead. Audience response later was general agreement that was a harder operation to set up and sustain, to get the same results.

Commissioners Harley Belew, Tom Moser and Don Harris added comments, with Moser saying a few years ago they looked at Gillespie County’s success with this; and asked if it could be revenue-neutral.

Belew said it’s sad for vets to have these layers of steps to get benefits, a special group of citizens, but it still comes down to dollars and cents; and he hopes they can move toward a nonprofit entity.

Harris said this discussion reminds him of layers of paperwork in education to spend budget funds, and now they are facing unusual times and an unclear future, one reason to tighten their belts.

Speakers

In the workshop over almost two hours, every citizen speaker asked the county to continue providing this trained staff and service for area veterans, stressing the two employees have brought $100-plus million in disability and other regular payments to veterans and into the local economy.

The VSO office has two employees, and costs the county $103,000 per year, Kelly has said; while the federal government should be doing this work with veterans to get them connected to benefits.

Veteran Services Officers Marty Mistretta and Jenna Sanchez, both veterans themselves, led off the workshop with a briefing on their activities in the past year.

Mistretta works fulltime for the county and Sanchez is a part-time employee.

They were followed by members of the Kerr County Veterans Services Advisory Committee, including Gary Noller, chairman; Byron Warren, vice chairman; and Vicki Marsh, a retired Marine colonel. About 18 area citizens attended.

This committee urged citizens, especially local veterans, to attend and voice their opinions and concerns about continuing or deleting this office from county services. They also could have sent emails, or still can call commissioners.

Advisory Committee members asked area veterans to support continued funding for this service, as a valuable resource for area veterans, their family members and survivors.

VSO report

Mistretta and Sanchez presented their “Performance Report as of June 14,” saying commissioners got most of this information previously.

Overall, they said the federal system is another layer of bureaucracy and it’s so perplexing one needs a guide to get benefits.

The duo have/had 166 claims approved and favorable; 402 claims pending approval through the federal VA system; and 21 surviving spouses’ claims pending.

“This seems like a lot, and it is, but VA Secretary Wilkie recently addressed this issue, caused in part by COVID-19. Fortunately having a VA accreditation allows us to look at VA files on individual cases to see their status. We track pending applications closely and when clients call and ask about their status, the information we give them is current.”

They said the VA has 20 offices nationwide to process claims and the only one in Texas is in San Antonio. Two staffers at the VA cover 20 counties; and 75 percent of claims originate with county vets officers.

The duo presented four of their success stories on approved favorable claims, starting with a veteran awarded an 80-percent disability rating and started receiving $1,536.48 monthly. They said this will increase as they are trying to add his spouse.

The second was about a veteran whose disability rating increased from 80 to 100 percent, upping his monthly payments from $1,657.80 to $2.864.90.

The third followed up a 2018 claim, which the VA then approved at 100 percent disability, and sent a retroactive check for $60,740.80 and started monthly payments of $3,106.04. Officers also will be adding his spouse to his claim.

They said these three together more than equaled the annual cost to operate their office.

And in the fourth section, they said they obtained five certificates of eligibility for veterans during this COVID-19 pandemic, VA documents issued to veterans qualified for VA-guaranteed home loans. The standard VA loan limit is $510,000, they said.

They listed the following: 282 walk-ins; 198 appointments; 3,474 emails, 1,950 phone calls; 157 requests submitted for military records; 40 home visits including to one assisted-living home and one senior adult community; outreach to 375 veterans and family members at Salute to Women Veterans and other local events; distributed 187 Vietnam Commemoration books and 19 Kuwait books; and trained on 91 job-related items.

Their report included 29 most commonly used forms and 55 others used less often. They listed 12 forms used to get veterans compensation or pensions, and said they use an average of nine of them for each veteran’s claim.

They listed 11 forms used for widow/parent/child dependency and indemnity compensation and pension claims, saying they use all of them on almost every such claim.

They also listed appeals activities; nursing and home health care activities; five other “dependent forms,” 13 forms related to medical care applications and claims; five related to home loan, adaptive devices and clothing allowances; three for educational and vocational rehab; two for common law; and 11 used for insurance, death and burial claims.

Citizen comments

Marsh said before the meeting Kerrville is home to more than 5,000 veterans; and these officers have brought more than $100 million in benefits into the county.

Noller said he doesn’t want to lose this office and services, that to commissioners it’s a money thing, but to him it’s emotional. He cited the pending claims and said this staff is needed here because vets’ needs aren’t being met anywhere else.

“The VA says disability benefits increase about 5 percent per year. The pandemic doesn’t stop federal checks, and these people don’t get better.”

He cited a federal budget of $240 billion, with about 19 million vets in the U.S. and said the federal VA budget is never “frozen.” As for a nonprofit, Noller said not everybody can process claims and services, by law; and though the VFW and other organizations are allowed to do this, those representatives are usually in bigger cities.

“The VA is the judge in this; the U.S. treasury the defendant; and the vet the claimant. If there are no VSOs, some vets will give up and stay home. They worked for these benefits, and deserve them. And it’s still a recruiting promise to new guys and gals that they will get benefits.”

Kelly said this was still a budget workshop, and asked where they can get the money. Noller said if he was asking, Noller’s willing to pay more taxes to do this.

Warren said the county makes money by “cost avoidance” and all tax money filters little by little eventually to the country ledger. Veterans’ payments are free to vets but they are spending it in the budget. The vets’ money is a small part of a “really big scale” but also an “economic engine,” he said, and vets’ property taxes are part of that – money that wasn’t there before.

Mike Sigerman said it was not citizens’ role to say where the money comes from; but commissioners felt it was needed when they established it. Now they have to look at what they are going to do if the VSO office goes away.

Mike Cagle said he works for a nonprofit helping vets, and they get part of their funds from grants, including one from the Texas Veterans Commission that would pay for these two ladies. He said he personally gets 10 percent disability for hearing loss.

Bill Cantrell, Vietnam vet, said many people in the room fought for the VSO to be created here. He said state mandates are probably figures on “averages” to say what is required, including population; and he expects overall population could be as high as 53,000 after the Census.

He said more things could be found, beyond Agent Orange, to cause more vets’ claims. “I see this office as a moral mandate, as something we dare not lose.”

Marsh said the Texas Senate may be considering funding for VSOs. She said no training would be offered under a nonprofit; and VSO must be “accredited” to be able to give services. And survivors’ and widows’ loss of income troubles her most, as it drops 37 percent for widows, compared to widowers.

“There’s no time limit on their disabilities,” she said. “Surviving family members represent an unmet need, after high demand on each vet’s survivors.”

Ronnie Carroll thanked the present and past commissioners for the VSO, saying vets’ taxes and benefits probably paid for this one. “I think you have an idea of the economic impact of this. Cut other budget parts a little here and there. We need it here and it creates economic wealth.”

David Diamond questioned their values versus finances, asking, “If you shut this down for $103,000 a year and things get worse or better, what will it cost to set it up again?”

Nickie Luther, a surviving spouse of a Vietnam combat medic, said, “The VSO can help surviving spouses on the worst day of their lives.” She called it a financial investment of $103,000 to protect this service when it brings money in.

Another vet (ret. Army, Vietnam) said there was a whole crop of new veterans not represented in this meeting, who are probably out working for a living. “They probably haven’t had time to visit these young ladies. I tell them to go see these ladies, because some of them don’t remember what their benefits are.”

Tammy King, VSO in Gillespie County, said when things change so fast, the Kerr County officers have just now gotten to the point after training to be lawyers, social workers and claims processors. “What they do can make or break a claim and lose a vet hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many VSOs resign after one or two years. If you start over, you have untrained officers. A nonprofit can do a lot of good but it can’t file claims with access to the VA system after viewing a vet’s file.”

King said the TVC has grant money, but their staff doesn’t do outreach and education; and this needs trained people to get vets what they deserve and are entitled to.

Paul Zolan said if about 5,000 vets and their survivors here could qualify for benefits, but not all get them, numbers could double. “We need the VSO; there’s inadequate staff at the VA. Use reserves, perhaps for one year.”

A son of an Army Air Corps Master Sergeant, said the VSO is a critical part of the county’s business, “to keep these fine ladies on the job.” He said support must be more than ceremonious, by all of Kerr County, that this is not a novel invention. There was a vets’ program in 1636. He said the vets’ benefits are free money for the county every month; and the vets “don’t have experience to navigate the Byzantine system. You’ll have to make this happen.”

Commissioners were told there could be more discussions about this, but it was up to them “to do the right thing.”

Several citizen presentations were followed by audience applause.

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