The Rev. Bob Swick, a Marine Corps veteran and chairman of the Tampa Bay Veterans Alliance, tells Pinellas County Commissioners June 10 about problems with its Veterans Services Department.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County Commissioners promised veterans Feb. 5, 2013 that staff would solve all the problems caused by a reorganization of its Health and Human Services Department.
The intent of reorganization had been to make it easier for veterans to receive service by providing more locations while saving the county money through shared administrative and support staff. Local veterans insisted that the plan wasn’t working. They attended commission meetings for months prior to that February meeting, voicing their problems.
Staff kept telling commissioners that it was all a misunderstanding and that everything would be fine once the plan was fully implemented. But, the veterans refused to be deferred. They filled the commissioner’s assembly room Jan. 29, 2013, accompanied by representatives from the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.
At the end of that meeting, commissioners finally conceded that the problem likely could be traced to taking budget cuts too far.
During the meeting, former Health and Human Services director Gwendolyn Warren, who lost her job about the same time the commission fired former county administrator Bob LaSala in April, explained that the changes were made to ensure her department was operating at maximum efficiency in providing core services.
Veterans Services and resources devoted to providing services to homeless veterans had been combined to improve efficiency. The office that had historically served veterans seeking assistance in filing claims was closed and moved into a nearby office that served all Health and Human Services clients.
However, by law, a certified Veterans Services Officer must assist veterans looking to apply for services available to them and those needing to file claims. During the reorganization, two VSO positions along with a senior VSO position became vacant.
Mike Pendergrast, executive director of Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, explained to commissioners Jan. 29, 2013 why Warren’s plan was flawed. He said VSOs had to be trained professionals. They are required to undergo annual training and provide 1,000 hours of support each year. They are required to keep up with new rules and laws that govern the claims process.
He showed a significant decline in claims processed by the county’s Veterans Services Department during the last four months of 2012 – coinciding with the time the veterans began coming to commission meetings with their complaints.
Ann Tarter, FDVA director of benefits and assistance, told commissioners that she had met with Warren, who had continued to defend her plan to allow non-veterans to assist veterans, which was contrary to state and federal law. She explained that after the county filled its vacant positions, it would take six months for the new hires to complete training and start doing to job.
County staff’s action plan presented Feb. 5, 2013, was supposedly designed to fix the problem. Help would be provided until Pinellas could fill its vacant position and get trained staff.
Hillsborough County offered to provide assistance by providing a VSO three days a week. FDVA agreed to provide an additional VSO, and a retired VSO agreed to volunteer 20 hours a week to help fill the void and clear the backlog.
At the end of the meeting, then Commissioner Chair Ken Welch, said, “There was a clearly a communication issue. We need to eliminate the backlog and make sure the same problems don’t happen again.”
Several veterans attended a June 10 budget work session to let commissioners know the county’s Veterans Services Department was experiencing problems again. According to the Rev. Bob Swick, a Marine Corps veteran and chairman of the Tampa Bay Veterans Alliance, the county is down to 3.5 VSO positions, which is not nearly enough to serve the 95,000 veterans who call Pinellas home. He said the county needed at least nine. Warren’s goal had been to provide five positions.
“We’re back to where we were a few months ago,” Swick said.
He suggested asking Hillsborough County and the state to provide assistance again. He asked the commission to schedule a public meeting on the issue.
“It’s in your power to show that this county does, in fact, care for its veterans or not,” Swick said.
Commissioner Chair Karen Seel said Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard and Assistant Administrator Bruce Moeller were working on the issue.
“I don’t think that we well-served our veterans in the last 24 months,” Woodard said.
He said the commission had directed staff to do “all we can” to solve the problem. He said working with Moeller and Lynda Leedy, new director of Health and Community Services, a new action plan had been developed.
Moeller said the county has budgeted for 5.5 VSO positions. Currently a manager and one VSO position are open. He said that currently it takes about 48 hours for staff to respond to phone calls and about a week to get an appointment.
He said Human Resources staff was reviewing the requirements and pay of the manager’s position, which would be advertised soon. In addition, one shared employee would be returning to work full time with Veterans Services.
Woodard said the commission had asked that an additional $150,000 be allocated to Veterans Services. He said staff was working on a plan to best allocate that money.
Commissioner Norm Roche said $150,000 wasn’t enough. He suggested allocating $500,000. Commissioner John Morroni agreed.
“$150,000 is not enough,” he said.
Welch is concerned that a problem the commission believed had been solved last year had returned. He wants staff to come up with an exact number of positions and budget needed to provide adequate service. Woodard said staff was planning for five VSO and two administrative positions. He promised staff would do its “due diligence” and report the findings to the board.
Seel suggested that staff look at the way other counties provide veterans services.
“The budget over the last eight years has been pretty static,” she said.
She said the commission’s commitment to veterans had remained unchanged.