Monday, May 25, 2009

Time to Put Our Money Where Out Mouths Are On Veterans

Lots of people will be marching in or watching Memorial Day parades Today (May 25, 2009) honoring our nation's veterans. But we need to do more.

The state budget crunch is cutting in to funds for helping our troops when they return home from their deployments. Now it's up to us at the local level to pick up the slack. So far, the Livingston County Commission has failed to do so.

American Legion Post 141 has sent out an email about the emergency that the Livngston County Veterans Committee has declared regarding emergency relief for veterans.

The post's email states:

"The County Veterans Committee is going to be asking the County Commissioners to approve a 1/20th of a mill Levy, specifically to fund Veterans Relief. The law, Public Act 214 of 1899, provides that a County must levy a millage to fund Veterans Relief--but Livingston County has not been levying the required millage. Surrounding counties- Shiawassee, Washtenaw, Oakland, and Ingham County, all provide County Veterans Relief Services from Public Act 214 of 1899 funds.

"So far the County Commission has refused to take a vote on authorizing a Veterans Relief Fund millage. The Veterans Committee wants to make it clear to the Commission that funding Veterans Relief is not going to wait. We need it now.

"Please turn out Tuesday, May 26th, at 7:00 p.m., to let the Commission know you are serious about funding Veterans Services."

County Veterans Committee Chairman John Colone is asking all veterans to come to the Livingston County Commissioners Human Resources committee meeting on Tuesday (May 26) to show support for the millage. The meeting is at the East Annex building- directly EAST of the Old County Courthouse. The meeting room is on the second floor.

The county is required to levy this tiny millage and is refusing to do so. It should have been levying it during the good times, so we would have a cushion during hard times.

Absolutely irresponsible.

21 comments:

kevins said...

You say the law REQUIRES the county to levy a millage. But county officials say the law ALLOWS them to levy a millage without voter approval. Big difference. Do you know which is correct?

Also, it appears that the county is already allocating to the veterans office an amount that is about equal to the money that the tax would raise. So it looks like the vets are getting the money without a tax hike on the community.

Or is it a lack of a tax hike that has you outraged?

Judy said...

The law says "shall levy."

http://law.onecle.com/michigan/35-veterans-and-members-of-armed-forces/mcl-35-21.html

kevins said...

I haven't read your link yet, but I shall when I have time.

If the law truly says "shall levy" then there should be no argument. I would be curious to see what it says though, since Mr. Colone last night only asked for 1/20th of a mill, when others say the law allows for 1/10th of a mill. That's odd language for a "shall levy" requirment.

But the law's the law. If that is what it says, it must be obeyed. But I'm wondering if it is levied in all 83 counties. It's hard to believe that most counties would be ignoring a statutory mandate.

You do realize, don't you, that the vets might not get much more money even if the tax is assessed? The county already allocated more than $300,000 to the vets. If there is a vets tax, then the county would quit allocating that and allow the tax to provide the funding. This will likely turn out to be a small tax increase that mostly benefits the county general fund.

Thanks for the link, though. I do appreciate it.

kevins said...

Okay, I looked at your link. It's not exactly as you think.

It says the county board SHALL levy a tax NOT EXCEEDING 1/10 of a mill. And the money raised from that levy goes to a fund to aid indigent vets and their families.

So, the county is not levying such a tax...but if it did, it need only levy a minimum tax...even as low as 1/100th of a mill...to comply.

Remember, the law does not state how much the levy should be, only that it can be no higher than 1/10th of a mill.

It's not as though the county is ignoring the vets. Its funding from the general fund is very close to the amount that would be raised by 1/20 of a mill.

forward-observer said...

First- the law says "up to". You are correct. The State of Michigan Attorney General in 1933 said (in OAG, 1932-34 pp 205 &206)the following:

"Section 1 of the Act makes it mandatory...to levy a tax not exceeding the full 1/10th of a mill.... this I believe leaves the amount to be levied up to the board..as long as the statute has been reasonably and substantially complied with...the madatory provision has been fulfilled as long as a reasonable tax is levied.".

(See also that cite in Attorney General Opinion # 5554, dated Sept 6, 1979.) http://www.ag.state.mi.us/opinion/opinions.aspx

Not all counties do it. Some counties provide general funds in an equal amount. This however, is the trend in counties right now- replacing part or most of the general fund allocation, with PA214 of 1899 funds, because the 214 funds are a DEDICATED funding mechinism that cannot be used for anything other than Veterans relief.

In the last two years- the following counties have adopted PA214 of 1899 as the way to fund:
Gratiot, Bay, Cheboygan, Ingham, Washtenaw, Kent. Oakland has levied it for years. Some counties adopted it in 1899, others after World War 1, others after World War II. Some during Korea and Vietnam. But when MaComb veterans asked for it in the early 1990's, it ended up being a sturng out lawsuit when MaComb County commissioners refused, and after ten years, they ended up putting a similar measure on the ballot, where it passed by over 70%. In the meantime, MacComb taxpayers ended up spending a lot in court to pay for attorney's fees to defend the dumb decision.

It's actually a win-win for vets and commissioners, because it frees up some general fund cash, while still allowing veterans services.

More are studying it now. the benefit is that the county can then redirect the general fund money to other pressing issues, and leave the Veterans department with a known, steady stream as needed.

Finally, the word "indigent" and the word "relief" are not defined in state law- other counties use the VA standard for income levels to determine "indigent". That's about 75% of the vets coming into the office- less than about 31K a year income qualifies. And "relief" is defined by others as counseling, help preparing VA benefit applications, transportation to the hospital, etc. ", thereby allowing the funds to help offset operational costs.

kevins said...

Thanks for the info, forward.

Outrageous that Macomb would force an expensive court case when the law is clear.

I agree about the advantage of dedicated money for the veterans needs.

What worries me is that it is hidden -- although small -- tax increase, which would be justified as helping veterans when in fact veterans might not see any additional money.

If the county is meeting the funding requirement out of general fund, then the push for a new tax is just a political ploy ... other than the assurance of dedicated funds as you say.

But if the county adds a new veterans tax and then quits funding the vets out of general fund, then this is just a disguised tax hike to help cover county shortfalls.

The 70 percent vote doesn't surprise me. I suspect at least such support in Livingston County.

kevins said...

Oddly enough...or not so oddly... judy tries to make this a partisan issue.

She accurately quotes the "shall levy" part of the law but conveniently ignores the significant "up to" phrase.

Also, looking at the list of counties that have levied a vet tax, some are very Republican (Kent). I don't know if the list was complete, but I didn't see Genesee on the list. I assume that's a Democratic board. Does Judy think the Genesee board is irresponsible and uncaring toward veterans. Just asking?

forward-observer said...

Note: two ways- either PA214 of 1899, which can be approved by the County Commission Directly, (no public voter approval needed) -or-

The county commission can put a separate Veterans Millage on the ballot, and let the people decide. Most Counties are choosing to do the PA214 route. In every case where it has appeared on the ballot, it has been approved by voters, but it takes longer time.

( Maybe now could be on November 2009 ballot, but Commissoner Jim Matney indicated he wanted it on a November 2010 ballot. If that happened, it would be collected until Summer of 2011).

Regarding Genesee County:
Genesee county is unique, in that it has three full time employees that the county pays for from general fund budget, and three full time veterans service officers paid for by the American Legion, VFW, and Disabled American Veterans (DAV), respectively, from funds allocated by the State of Michigan.

Those three service officers are currently paid out of that $4 million dollar state level funding, that was cut by executive order three weeks ago. The state funding has been in place for decades, and was cut by 25% as a result of current budget issues at the state level. It’s not yet known if any or all of the three VSO’s funded in Genesee will be terminated- the VFW just laid off 4 of it’s full time service offers last week. Battle Creek has a one-person DAV VSO funded from those funds, and that will close in June, and the VSO laid off.

See: Veterans $ cut

Genesee County also has a full-time Veteran’s Administration Medical Outpatient Center, where vets can get medical services, including blood work, EKGs, X-rays, and prescriptions. The VA provides more than $66 million dollars in benefits to Genesee County residents, compared to about $22 million for Livingston County residents. There are simply more Vets in Genesee. For a link to data, by county, of both diabiltiy compensation payments, and medical services by county, see:
VA County Data

click on the tab for Michigan, and then scroll down to see fund data by county.

Finally, it is true that many counties are now adopting P.A.214 of 1899 levies to fund their Veterans Relief – but some have chosen to go to the voters instead.

The benefit of going to the voters is that you can levy more than the 1/10th of a mill allowed by law that way, and/or you can use it for more things than the limited use that P.A. 214 of 1899 requires. PA214 funds can ONLY be used for relief of indigent veterans- (see above definition). That means only about 75% of Veterans Office funding can technically be provided through PA 214 funds. On the other hand- if voters passed a county veteran’s millage, instead of the County Commission doing a direct PA214 millage, then the entire Veterans office expenses could be funded that way, instead of just 75% or so.

Some Michigan counties have chosen to do ballot millages, instead of PA214 of 1899 millages.

Here are the counties that have chosen to do a public voted funding, as of 2004, rather than direct Board of Commissioners approved P.A.214, for Veterans Services. Add Macomb county to this list, as they passed a Veterans ballot last year:

County-voted Veterans millages:

Veterans

County Millage
Benzie 0.0250
Branch 0.1000
Calhoun 0.0035
Montcalm 0.0010
Muskegon 0.0752
Newaygo 0.0932
Ogemaw 0.0500
Sanilac 0.1250
Wayne 0.0368

And now Macomb.

Source:
Data from 2004.

forward-observer said...

correction- should read: "...wouldn't be collected until summer 2011".

My error- sorry.

kevins said...

Really good information, forward. Thanks.

I did not mean to imply that Genesee did not support vets. They seems to dedicate a lot of money from the general fund...and do it without the additional millage rate that Judy seems to support.

Those counties that vote in the vet tax may prove my point even better. If Livingston voted in 1/40th of a mill, such as Benzie, or some of the even smaller numbers, they could have the Vet tax but actually decrease funding to the vets. Not saying they would, but they could.

The vets office should be adequately funded. I'm just not fond of these off-the-wall partisan attacks. The county commissioners are no more anti-vet than were Democrats when they challenged the war. they are trying to make good decisions...I can disagree with their decisions without waving a bloody flag at them.

I'm naive to expect fairness on a partisan blog, I agree, but I can always hope for a little accuracy.

Thanks again for link...it provides a lot of interesting information.

forward-observer said...

KevinS-

Unfortunately, it is hard to explain why Benzie County and Livingston County is an apples to oranges comparison, but I will try.

First, when Benzie's rate was 0.025, as described here, it raised $52,000 dollars for the Veterans Relief fund. Benzie levied 0.025 for the first time in years in the year 2007. The link to that Benzie Board Action is here.
Prior to that, it had been several years since they had levied the millage, as they had some funds left from prior levies. Remember- PA214 funds can ONLY be spent on Veterans Relief, and so there was a small fund balance for several years. That began to dwindle in 2006, and was gone by 2007. So they reinstated at the rate of 0.025 in 2007.

In September last year (2008), Benzie raised the rate from 0.025 (1/40th of a mill) , to 0.05 (1/20th of a mill). Here is the link to that board action. . See page 5 at the top.

They did that- raised it from 0.025, to 0.05, because they are having a crisis in veteran's relief funding as well.

That should raise about $100,000 this year (2009), specifically for veterans direct relief, not any operations funding. The county employee who answers the phone works in the treasurer's office there, and only sets appointment times for the traveling VSO.

Benzie operates with a single County employee as a point of contact for initial contact, and then has a traveling Veterans Service Officer, who is in Benzie County once a week, on Mondays.

Any and all actual assistance to Veterans is done by the traveling VSO, who is there one day a week.
One of the things the VSO can do there is recommend cash help, from the relief fund. But the VSo doesn't approve that expendature, the approval comes from a Veterans Committee. (Similar to our Veterans Committee, headed by John Colone here).

And the $52,000 last year, which will be in the range of $100,000 this year- is not used to pay the VSO- It's used as direct emergency funding for the veterans, either cash, or payments on the vet's behalf to electric, heating (lots of propane in Benzie), or transportation to and from VA medical facilities.



Second, and more importantly, if you want apples to apples- compare this- the $100,000 raised in Benzie, is directly related (same fund type line item) to the $6,000 direct allocation given now by the Livingston County General Fund for Veterans cash relief. (Livingston County General Fund line item number 293).

(more in a moment).

forward-observer said...

Next- let me do another comparison for you- Benzie has 1,914 veterans in their county, including 380 who receive medical care from VA facilities.

Livingston County has 12,955 veterans in the county, including 1,345 who receive medical care from VA facilities. That data comes from that same VA spreadsheet of Veterans locations and benefits.

That means, on a per-head basis, Benzie raises $52 in taxes for each veteran in the county.

Livingston does not spend $308,000 on veterans- as was published in the paper. Let me clarify that too:

I have in front of me, this instant, the Livingston County 2009 Budget book. There are four divisions of the Veterans office line items as follows:

1. $21,732, which was allocated for Veterans burials. When a veteran dies, their family can get a $300 dollar burial allowance here in this county.

2. $208,751- Veterans Affairs operating funds. This was meant to fund the three full-time positions of: 1. A full-time Director, 2. one full-time counselor, and 3. A full time secretary.

Well, the full time director retired. the Commission has since hired a part-time, 20 hour a week, no benefits director. the commission also authorized a second benefits counselor full time. that's good, it was very needed. But the person they hired for that job is brand new, and will take some time to get fully up to speed. Finally, the full-time secretary was replaced with a part-time postion, 20 hours per week. So you went from a staff of three full time, to two full time and two part time. Note- they authoizred an additional $60,000 for the second full time person, which takes the $208,751 up to 268,751. However, part of that money was used for the buyout of the existing director.

Finally, the budget cited a line item of $40,000 for the "veterans Relief Fund". that's a misnomer. Let me explain.

The State of Michigan distributes the "Soldier's Trust Fund" to each county, based on number of vets. IN past years that was $25,000 for Livingston. In 2008, due to budget cuts, it initially was $20,000, not $25,000, as it had been in years before. Last year they ran out of money half-way through the year. That money can only be used for wartime vets, with specific criteria. When they ran out, they asked for more from Lansing due to the emergency, and got an additional $20,000 last year for this fund. All but about $1600 was spent in 2008 of this fund- $38,400 or so. All in small chunks- usually $200 or $300 to buy heating, electric bill, food, etc.

this year, the County Bduget shows $40,000 as the line item. However, Lansing again provided only $20,000 this year. That money is nearly gone now. We tried to ask Lansing again for more- but this year the well is dry, and we're not expecting any more. In addition, the lack of a full-time director has hampered the efforts to communicate this need.

So the real general fund allocation this year has been:

(to be continued next post)

forward-observer said...

Livingston County allocated general fund money:

$21,732 burials.
$258,751 for operations
plus
$6,000 for direct relief- county allocated, and not bound by the same rules as the Michigan Soldiers Trust Fund money.

total County allocation from the general fund: $286,483.

Thank you Livingston, because we need that.

Also, there is (was) $20,000 from state trust fund -(already discussed). So the total spent towards veterans was $306,483 (286483 County, and 20,000 State supplied Veterans trust funds)

forward-observer said...
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forward-observer said...
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forward-observer said...

Sorry to disgress so far off topic.

Anyway- the veterans committee recognized the significant problem with funding- and knows that next year isn't going to be any better- that demand for services is rising quickly, and if you think State and County budgets are tight now, just wait until you see what happens next year. The veterans' committee doesn't want to run the risk of a significant cut next year, and wanted to start the discussion with the County Commission of another way to meet veterans needs, without imposing greater increased costs on an already stretched county general fund. The bottom line is- the veterans committee is dead set on ensuring adequate veterans funding, and sees this as a way to ensure it will continue. That's why they started the discussion with the Commission this week.

Get ideas on the table- start to flesh them out, and make sure the County Commission hears the need, and sees what alternatives they have now, instead of waiting until 2010 or 2011, when things are really bad.

Anyway- the idea of a 1/20th mill is now on the table, and can be looked at. That was the point - get the discussion started. Now it's up to the community to learn, and the commissioners to act. The veterans are watching, and intend to ensure this passes. Whether it is a PA214 of 1899, which the Commission themselves can do on a simple majority vote, or whether it is another kind of millage, as in Macomb, either way ensures help is on the way. Let them study both options. I hope they choose PA214, because that is quicker, less expensive to do, and is what dozens of other Michigan counties have done after studying the same types of facts.

We'll see. It's next stop is the Finance Committee in June.

forward-observer said...
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forward-observer said...

back to our comparison-

Livingston has 12,955 veterans, and spends $306,483 on them. that's $23.65 per veteran for spending.

Benzie has 1,914 veterans, and spends $53 of taxes per veteran.

So- if you want to use Benzie for a comparson, that's how it works out.

A note to think about- each veteran which is able to utilize VA health care, instead of Medicaid, is a significant savings in tax dollars. The VA provides care at about half the cost of Medicaid. So a good effort should be made to connect eligible veteran with quality VA health care.

You'll note from that list of statistics- that Livingston has 1,345 enrolled in VA health care. And they get a total of $10,047,000 worth of treatment.

that's $74,380 apiece.

Many are being treated for cancer, or heart problems, at Ann Arbor's state of the art VA facility.

Many use VA because they haven't yet reached medicare age (65), or don't have other health insurance options. Being age 50 to 65 and try to buy health insurance, when you've been laid off? Not easy.

I am sure that if they were being treated in public or private hospitals, for cancer and/or advance heart disease, the bill would be much, much higher.

Anyway- that's the case. I've been down to VA in Ann Arbor, and worked with vets undergoing Chemo treatments. Without VA, they wouldn't be here. And the way they get into the VA system, is with the help of a knowledgeable VSO. Now Livingston is going to have two full time. that's good, but it's only one way that VSO's and Veterans connect. It's also a very, very important way- and why it's important to fully fund veterans services.

forward-observer said...

Finally, none of this is, or should be, a partisan question.

Veterans are not blue, nor are they red. In the Army, we always said we're all green. the military culture is an amazing society- No black, no white, no yellow, just all green. And all red-white-and blue. We work together, serve together, and try and take care of each other, regardless of background, where were are from, color of our skin, or ethnic heritage. We're all Americans.

And we all bleed red.

Despite some of us being Republican, and some of us being Democrats, first and foremost we are brothers (and sisters) in the service of our nation.

We take care of each other, and fight for each other. And our country too.

We all have a lot in common.

I'm sorry anyone took it that way-as a partisan issue. It's not.

But the facts are that there is a real problem right now with Veterans Services- it is being dealt with, and options are being put on the table in this time of economic crisis to try and deal with it.

We are asking the republican County Commissioners, and we are asking the democrats of the county who will help, to take a look, and see if we can all find common ground on ways to help veterans.


Thanks for listening, and learning more about the issue. We've got a long way to go if we are going to be successful, and this is just a start. Thanks for taking the time to read all of this, and learn.


Sincerely-

A veteran.