Dozens of county veterans agencies across Ohio allowed millions of dollars, earmarked to help needy veterans, to go unused again last year, according to a new state report obtained exclusively by this newspaper.
That very issue was highlighted in a $98,000 study, completed late last year, that showed some of Ohio’s biggest counties don’t use millions of dollars they’re entitled to from county property taxes while some smaller counties barely have enough money to help their local vets.
In all, Ohio’s 88 counties spent nearly $60 million, a little more than half, of the $115.5 million in county property taxes they’re able to claim. Of that, agencies spent roughly $21 million giving emergency financial assistance to 52,000 of Ohio’s struggling veterans in 2013. An estimated 878,000 veterans live in the state.
Large counties, including Montgomery, Butler and Hamilton counties, have greater property tax collections and more veterans, but often spend less than half of their share of property taxes and return the rest of the money to their county’s general fund. Meanwhile, less populated counties situated in rural areas, such as Athens and Ross counties, collected far less in property taxes, but used nearly every dollar they were given on veterans.
“We try to use all of the money that’s available for the veterans and put it in the veteran’s hands,” Ross County Veteran Service Commission Assistant Director Richard Shanks said. Agency officials in Ross County spent every penny of the $580,000 share they got from county taxpayers last year.
No plans for action
The Ohio Department of Veteran Services, which has no authority over the 88 county veterans service commissions, last year commissioned the taxpayer-funded study, which noted the disparity in funding from county to county.
Officials with the state veterans agency, however, can’t dictate how much funding each county veterans agency gets, Ohio Department of Veterans Services spokesman Michael McKinney said this Wednesday.
“The director reviewed (the study) and there are no current plans to take action concerning it,” McKinney said, in an email. Ohio Department of Veteran Services Director Tim Gorrell, who was appointed to the position in October, was not immediately available to comment on the report.
County veterans agencies collect a small portion — a .5 mill — from county property taxes every year to give money to veterans who need helping pay bills or buying food, provide assistance with navigating federal and state benefits available to veterans, and help vets get transportation to and from appointments at the VA medical centers.
The annual report for 2013 also reveals a disparity in the number of veterans who got emergency aid from their county veterans office.
Affluent Warren County, for example, is home to roughly 16,000 veterans but helped nearly three times as many veterans as neighboring Butler County and nearly as many as Montgomery County, both of which boast bigger veterans populations. The Warren County agency handed out money 610 times to those vets who asked for helped last year, according to the report.
Officials at the Warren County Veteran Service Commission have stepped up efforts to advertise the agency in recent years, Director Rodney Eversole said. His agency asked for a more than $500,000 increase in funding this year. That money will primarily be spent on radio ads for the agency and a new mobile office for agency workers to travel around to stores, festivals and nursing homes to meet with veterans.
“To me, there’s a direct correlation between awareness and the amount of veterans that we help,” Eversole said. “A lot of veterans don’t know we exist and it’s up to the individual county to get the word out.”
Nearby Montgomery County — which is home to 45,329 veterans — gave out money 661 times, 30 times less than in 2012. The Montgomery agency also had a 30 percent denial rate for veterans who asked for emergency help in 2012 but that slimmed down to 11 percent this year.
That’s because the agency is focusing on helping many of those needy veterans apply for federal benefits, Montgomery County Veteran Service Commission Director Herb Davis said. Last year, agency workers helped more than 800 veterans get new or additional federal benefits, he said.
Helping veterans pay their rent, mortgage or bills only comprises a small portion of the services veterans get at the county commission office, Butler County Veterans Service Commissioner Bob Perry said.
“Eight-five percent of the people that come in are looking to see if there are state or federal benefits they can get,” Perry said.
More than 4,800 veterans came to the office to get help with VA benefits and services or emergency financial assistance and the office another 5,131 trips to medical appointments last year.
Butler County gave emergency aid only 222 times in 2013, one time less than the year before. The agency also turned away nearly 40 percent of veterans seeking emergency financial assistance in 2012 — the highest rate in the state.
The ineligibility rate for veterans seeking immediate cash from the county since dropped to 30 percent last year.
And, the county is on track to give out money to a greater number of vets already this year. As of April 25, the most up-to-date figures officials could provide, commissioners have provided financial assistance 201 times and only denied aid 21 times.
The agency’s embattled, former Director Curt McPherson retired in February and the new director, Caroline Bier, will take the lead of the agency in June.
Perry said he doesn’t know why the agency has handed out more financial aid so far this year but he hopes the change is a sign that more vets have become aware of the agency and its services.
“That’s a big jump,” Perry said. “That’s what we’re here for, that’s what the taxpayers are paying for. We might be reaching out more.”
By Amanda Seitz - Dayton Daily News, Ohio (MCT)
©2014 the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio)
Visit the Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio) at www.daytondailynews.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services