Veterans board seeks changes to assistance program

The Kitsap County Veterans Advisory Board this month unanimously voted to suggest changes to the veterans assistance that focus on “basic needs to survive” and cap maximum amount of monetary aid to individual veterans.

Under the old guidelines the maximum monetary aid a veteran could receive from the fund was $1,200 for the year. The new policy seeks to lower that amount to $900 per veteran per year. The board hopes to better define what is considered a basic need, including housing, heat, medicine and food.

The proposed changes will be reviewed by county staff and then sent to the county commissioners for a further action.

Other changes include limiting food and medicine aid to $500 per individual each year. Temporary lodging for veterans that cannot get into shelter beds will be cut in half from 10 days. Secondary items like mortgage assistance for veterans, help with educational expenses, transportation assistance, car repair, daycare or legal expenses have been cut out of the scope of aid, said Michelle Hodges, Veterans Assistance Fund policy review committee member.

Hodges explained that the committee decided, in a joint meeting with Kitsap Community Resources, that there are federal and county programs outside of the fund that can help veterans. Streamlining is key, she said.

“Of course secondary needs are important, but they will no longer be addressed by the veterans assistance fund,” Hodges said. “We have to keep people alive and if there is money left over we can help with other areas of their lives.”

Last month, the veterans assistance fund paid out approximately $32,000 in aid to 64 veterans in the county. The board discussed its concern that money  was running out at the December 2011 meeting when it voted to recommend a veterans assistance property tax levy to the commissioners.

“That’s a pretty heavy start,” said Mark Lowe, board member.

Senate Bill 6452 for the property tax levy for veterans has passed the Ways and Means committee Feb. 6 and is moving on to be heard at the Rules. The bill seeks to remove the veterans assistance fund from counties’ general levies into a separate and more flexible process.

There are still concerns about limited assistance funds, but Leif Bentsen, Kitsap County veterans funds coordinator, believes that the monthly number will decrease when the suggested revisions go into effect.

“I think that everyone feels pretty strongly that the veterans assistance fund should not be viewed as a veterans entitlement or benefits program,” Hodges said.

Gary Spevak, a former veterans service officer and a veteran in attendance, said that he likes the changes.

“There were some that truly deserved and needed the aid, others were just repeat customers, not actively seeking employment and treated it like an entitlement,” Spevak said. “I felt like it was being abused. Where’s the emergent need?”

Ed Palm, board member, expressed some concern that the definition of “basic needs” was too limiting and that some “wiggle room” should be built into the policy language for unknown variables that effect a veteran’s survival.

The board listened to Palm’s concerns and revised the language to read that basic needs are “generally limited to” rather than “pertains to” housing, heat, medicine, and food to allow for special cases.

Bentsen explained that the local veterans service officers were consulted throughout the process of revision before it was brought to the advisory board, and the Feb. 8 meeting was open to public comment.

“It’s a very thorough review process,” Bentsen said. “We listen to what the veterans have to say.”

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