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Published: Monday, 10/18/2004

Lucas Co. cuts cash assistance to veterans

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Lucas County Veterans Service Commission cut off emergency cash assistance for two weeks last month. The Lucas County Veterans Service Commission cut off emergency cash assistance for two weeks last month.
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Daniel Red Cloud Brown, a veteran fluent in Russian, hobbles around on a fake hip and requires pain medicine to alleviate severe arthritis inflammation.

But the American Indian veteran, who is seeking permanent disability from the federal government and recently had his hip replaced, was denied emergency aid at the Lucas County Veterans Service Commission last month, "due to funding," according to a brief, 19-word letter the commission sent him.

He is not alone. For the first time in recent memory, the county-funded agency, meant to provide emergency assistance for area veterans for rent, food, travel, and utilities, cut off emergency cash assistance for two weeks last month and has asked the county for more money, which it must provide, according to state law.

Executive Director Robert J. Mettler has requested $150,000 from the county to cover projected costs until the end of the year, he said.

The county has not made a decision yet, said John Alexander, chief of staff for the commissioners. He acknowledged that by statute the county must find the money.

Lucas County has roughly 50,000 veterans, Mr. Mettler said.

The commission kept close to its budgeted amount for assistance last year of $960,000, spending $977,016. But this year, the commission has already spent more than all of last year and will go beyond its budgeted amount of $1,008,686, said Bridgette Kabat, senior budget analyst for the county. The commission is spending about $100,000 a month and has $177,450 in the bank available for emergency relief, with only $78,000 of that money originally budgeted for that purpose, Ms. Kabat said.

Lucas County Commissioner Harry Barlos, president of the board, said the veterans commission is technically independent but still must be funded by the county. The veterans commission's five-member board is nominated by local veterans service organizations, such as Disabled American Veterans, and appointed by a local panel of Lucas County judges.

"We've always been responsive ... What we're going to do in the next few days is to analyze the request," Mr. Barlos said. "We're entering a [holiday/winter] season that for some, it's a happy time, but for others, they require some assistance."

Mr. Barlos said oversight is necessary, even if the agency is technically independent.

"We're not just going to issue the check. We need to see how many individuals they are serving, what the demand is, and where it's going. It's always good money management that when a request is made from any agency, we verify the request."

Lucas County Commissioner Maggie Thurber said the county has to give the money.

"The only source of funds would be out of the [general fund] reserve. They're spending roughly $100,000 a month for direct services to veterans and their families," she said. "They have an increased need. Whenever one of the guard units is deployed, the families become eligible. How do you ever tell a veteran who has served his country, 'No?' "

Mr. Mettler did not make his written budget request to the county until Sept. 22, the date the Lucas County Commissioners office stamped the paperwork. And during those first several weeks of September, some veterans, like Mr. Brown, were turned away and only received food vouchers, if they wanted them.

Mr. Brown, for his part, is caught between things, he said, and needs some emergency assistance just to live. While he waits for something to happen, he sleeps on the couch of a friend.

"They say I don't have arthritis even though I had my hip replaced," Mr. Brown said of his disability claim to the federal government. "The [local] veteran's commission pulled this, 'We don't have any money.' They said they lost track of how much money they spent and so they stopped everything while they checked the books."

A paper sign at the veteran's commission office said that only food vouchers would be given out as of Sept. 1. The sign remained there for most of the month.

Since then, the commission has returned to giving cash assistance, but it is stricter and they are only granted to prevent evictions, foreclosures, and utility shutoffs. The commission also pays for travel to hospitals for appointments.

Before Sept. 1, the commission used to be more liberal and would help with security deposits and back rent, Mr. Mettler said.

"We don't want to have someone out on the street to give someone else a security deposit," he said. "We restricted payments for approximately two weeks, starting the 1st of September. We did take information on shutoff notices. We try to do them at the end of the month, anyway."

The cash assistance to the commission would likely come from the county's general fund reserve, which the county keeps at 12 percent or higher of its operating budget, according to its policy. The 12 percent level would be $15,434,965. The county has $19,451,660 in its reserve, more than $4 million above the mark.

But county officials, who are working on setting next year's budget, say they face a projected shortfall up to $8 million for next year if all services are kept at the same level and with the predicted revenue.

The county's bond rating, which affects its cost of borrowing, is related to how much of a reserve the county carries.

The rating from various agencies is in the A range. "Triple A" is generally considered the best. Moody's Investors Service lists Lucas County as A-one, Standard & Poor's, A-plus, and Fitch, AA-minus, the highest of the three, Ms. Kabat said.

"The general fund reserve is available, but obviously, we're very protective of all of our reserve accounts because it is one of the elements that drives our borrowing," Mr. Alexander said.

Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said several veterans have contacted her looking for help - some even at her West Toledo home.

"I've been getting quite a few calls for some serious concerns about heat and rent. I am aware of the concerns and if there are real needs, we have to help to solve the problems. We have already given them more money in 2004 than we did in 2003," she said. "But people have actually shown up on my doorstep."

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.



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