Hood River County leaders vowed Monday to sustain its support for the County Veterans Service Office.
But the move came with sobering budget warnings from Board of Commission members.
As a standing-room-only an audience of 150 or so veterans and other supporters listened, the board briefly mulled options presented by County Administrator Jeff Hecksel, including closing the office, before unanimously deciding to retain the $31,000 county contribution that funds the program along with a $50,000 state match, by drawing from its dwindling savings, or contingency, account.
“It was never our intention to cut Veterans Services. That wasn’t even a discussion point in the budget process,” Commissioner Les Perkins said. “This took all of us by surprise, it was something we intended, and I have no qualms pulling it out of contingency.”
Commissioner Bob Benton said, “During the budget process, we had intended to fully fund VSO, but because of an oversight of a staff member no longer with us, we missed this particular intricacy of how the state gives us their money. This is never something we considered as far as cutting.”
The issue arose when Hecksel reported learning last month that the state told the county it could not rely solely on state funding to support the local office. Facing $1.46 million deficit, the county had in June approved a budget that did just that: Zero county funds for VSO, based on a recommendation by then-Community Development Director John Roberts, who in his position oversaw Veterans Service Officer Trisha Stevens and the VSO budget. (Roberts, now assistant city manager of Redmond, was unavailable for comment.)
But Hecksel informed the board last week that zero-funding of the office by the county violates state law, and the only way it could be done was if the county reduced funding to all departments by a proportionate amount, calculated at 25 percent.
“We made plenty of cuts in the (current) budget, but everyone knows it did not approach 25 percent,” Hecksel said.
In recommendation to the board, Hecksel said, “The county can restore the $31,276 and leverage the state’s contribution for continuation of the program, or the county can cease operation of the program. If the board wishes to continue the Veterans Service Program without cutting services in other areas, the easiest option is to reduce the county contingency by $31,276. The board could choose to cut services in another department.”
He noted that the county VSO is currently handling 566 pending claims and those veterans will need to find other representation if the office closes. A total of 1,191 veterans are represented locally, out of more than 3,000 registered veterans in the county.
“The county is faced with a very unfortunate situation,” Hecksel wrote. “Veterans who have given for their country are appreciated for their contribution to preserving the freedoms Americans enjoy. The reaction to the ceasing of Veterans Services is abhorrent. While it is important to recognize this part of the issue facing the county, it is also important to weigh the effect of unsustainable spending. The impact of unsustainable spending will have a negative impact on all the residents of Hood River County, including veterans. Veterans will continue to have services available to them should the county cease operations of the Veterans Service Office, but veterans choosing to use the Hood River office will now have to travel elsewhere or file their claims themselves. From a financial perspective, the county needs to cut services and/or obtain more revenue.”
“I hope what tonight’s discussion does is engages all of you in the discussions we will have with community members about what our options are so we can stabilize not only Veterans but lots of services, like our nurses in the Health Department, the Sheriff’s Department,” said Commissioner Karen Joplin, who with McBride is organizing community budget information sessions to be scheduled in October.
Board Chair Ron Rivers told the audience, “It is disconcerting to have this conversation at all; we all support veterans and what they’ve done for this country, but I think it’s important that I give you this message: This is not a threat, what we are doing with our budget. This is reality. We can’t keep up with expenses. We don’t have the revenue to keep up anymore. Our timber revenues are not keeping up, and it is imperative you folks get involved, and be with us, talk to us about what we should do. We have ideas, but we want to share them with the community. We want the community to get involved with us. It is imperative we have you on our side; if we don’t, it will only get worse.”
Stevens told the board, “This was not so much as an oversight as a disregard in my opinion. Because my previous supervisor (Roberts) and I on Aug. 17 had an in-depth conversation based on a conversation with (Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs.) However, thank you for funding us, and if you communicate with us just as you ask we do with you, we can offer different solutions. This entire group of people is funded by American Legions, VFW, other individual veterans who have the ability to help pay.
“If you get into a crisis, don’t give us three days’ notice. Give us some time, give us an opportunity, and give us what we deserve. All of our freedoms are because of what we all sacrificed. We deserve more than three days’ notice. I know Jeff (Hecksel) didn’t do it on purpose, but this was a surprise. I don’t know how the budget works. I am Veteran Service Officer. I shouldn’t have been reporting to the building department. I should have been reporting to someone who could have a conversation with me to understand what other abilities we have to fund, that you don’t obviously know about.”
Commissioner Rich McBride said, “If we can’t find more revenue, and we pass this tonight, next July 1, we’ll be faced with this question again, and at that time we’ll have less money than we do today. The other kinds of things we’ll be faced with is reducing county sheriff services: We will likely no longer have 24/7 sheriff services. We will also likely no longer have five-day a week offices open in this building. Every department will lose people if we can’t solve this problem.
“So while I will support funding the Veterans Services, I think our commission needs to decide what else we can cut to make up for this specific expenditure. It is a sad day when a county has to make a decision affecting hundreds of veterans for lack of $31,000. Hood River County needs to solve its revenue problem soon or this kind of cut of services and many more will be inevitable.”
Joplin noted, “We can’t even get anyone to apply for the financial director position, our pay scale is so far below market,
“We have people leaving because our pay is below market, the sheriff is having trouble with recruitment because of this, and we are seeing it impact other enforcement providers.
“We are happy to see everyone here, and it is interesting to see the same size crowd as we had here the night we had a discussion around the sales tax proposal, ways to produce revenue, and we have an equally passionate and active crowd, I think of different faces, show up when we talk about what would need to eliminate in order to balance the savings (contingency) account,” Joplin said. “The savings account is running out, and there’s a historical explanation of what has happened to our revenues. I hope you can engage with us, and continue to get to a better situation for all of our services.”
Perkins told the audience, “Yes, we will have this discussion next year and hopefully you all will engage in our budget discussions next year as we try to figure all this out. We have lots of things we have to provide in terms of services that are state mandated, but unfortunately Veterans Services is not one of those. So when we get into the budget discussion, we have to look at those things that the state requires us to fund first and then look at those things that are not state mandated. Over the years, and I’ve been in this office 18 years, we have continually watched the state pull funding from all kinds of areas and at some point in time, that comes home to roost.”