In your name | Lawmakers slow to change with veteran need

Homeless veterans at the Bunk House before it closed last year. The model was an attempt to find temporary housing solutions for veterans.

On the day that the Washington state Legislature held a well photographed ceremony honoring the United States Navy, legislation, with the potential to change the lives of the poorest veterans in the state, was quietly tossed into the trash.

That day, Feb 22, Senate Bill 6452 went into the Rules Committee “X” file – in this case, a trash bin – ending all conversation or possibility of action on the attempt to make the county-level tax fund for indigent veteran services, mandated by the state constitution, more flexible and responsive to the needs of each county’s veteran population.

What happened to SB6452 is generally emblematic of the path of state legislation that could help better the lives of the last five generations of men and women who served the nation. The current hearing process allows legislators to say publicly they support veterans and their needs while, at the same time, taking no action. Bills such as 6452 die on the vine.

Of 29 veteran related bills up for action by the 2012 Legislature, four moved forward.

Washington state senator Christine Rolfes (D Bainbridge) said that something like 6452, which she cosponsored, takes years to work its way through the system. With the bill now effectively dead, she said its too early to tell if next year will see the introduction of a similar bill.

It’s a cycle veterans have pressed into their souls during military service – hurry up and wait.

The so-called indigent veteran fund has been on the books since the days of the territorial legislature and the days when veterans were first beginning to ask for pensions and medical compensation for their service and sacrifice. Today, in Kitsap County, the fund has about $335,000 In 2007, the reserves hovered near $1.1 million.

In 2009, while preparing the 2010 general operations budget, county commissioners diverted hundreds of thousands of veteran tax collections into the county general fund to reach a balance. The move was legal because the veteran fund held a balance of more than $1 million. The draw down affected today’s available aid money.

The county expects to end this year with less than $200,000 in the veteran’s aid fund reserve.

Senate Bill 6452 sought to remove the veteran levy from the general fund and allow it to grow with inflation or 1 percent annually. One additional effect of the law would have kept the veteran levy collections from being moved into a county’s general fund to balance the overall budget, as done locally in 2010.

Outwardly, 6452 had popularity in the Legislature. Both the majority and minority supported its passage at the committee level. There was not a single comment offered against.

According to the Deputy Director of Washington state Association of Counties Scott Merrimann, his coalition across the state was in support of the legislation.

“We need your help,” he told the Senate Ways and Means Committee in February. “The bill will provide us with additional resources to meet those growing veterans responsibilities across the state.”

Rolfes said the state operated with the idea that veteran benefits and needs are largely a federal responsibility.

Starting this year the Veterans Affairs budget includes a $1.4 billion federal initiative, over two years, with a goal of ending homelessness among veterans. Nationally, about 24,000 Iraq and Afghan veterans are homeless.

Rolfes signed on with the legislation because it was the right thing to do overall for the district and its veterans.

“Without a doubt the Legislature is supportive of veterans issues,” she said.

The advantage to 6452 was that it would have kept the commissioners honest. The money would not have been available to balance the county general fund as in the past.

Mostly, the money goes to veterans for rent assistance, heating bills, food or transportation emergencies. Any honorably discharged veteran living in the county, who meets the defining qualification of living near the poverty line, can apply for the aid, About $30,000 a month has been spent to support needs  during the first three months of 2012.

Last month, Kitsap County Commissioners, acting on advice of the Veterans Advisory Committee, cut the annual maximum for a veteran from $1,200 to $900.

Kitsap County Veterans Assistance Program administrator Leif Bentsen said that without the cuts, the assistance fund would have been empty of money by the end of summer.

“We’re hoping to have money to give to a veteran on Chirstmas,” Bentsen said.

Helpful legislation

Camano Island Senator Mary Margaret Haugen offered up 6452 during the 2011 legislative session at the request of an  Island County Commissioner. Island County is home to about 13,000 veterans.

“Right now were doing well,”  said Island County Veteran Assistance Fund administrator Gerald “Jerry” Pfannenstiel.

His office on Caminao Island sees about 100 vets per year, up from 40 per year in 2008 and five or 10 in decades before the formation of their Veteran Advisory Board.

“Our commissioner was looking into the future because a time will come when need will outstrip revenue,” Pfannenstiel said.

The future of need

As counties look forward they see increased numbers of returning veterans as the wars wind down. With the continued down economy, the future is not looking much better. The collection cap will hinder veteran aid for Island County in the future, Pfannenstiel said.

Rolfes said the state wasn’t ready to give counties the power to freely adjust taxes.

Kitsap County projects the local veteran population, in the county in the coming years, to decrease but also expects the overall need for emergency relief to increase. Of the 38,000 veterans that call Kitsap County home, estimates hold the population of post 9/11 veterans to about 4,000. The bulk of the rest served in Vietnam and Korea. Lesser numbers are from the ranks of World War II and the Gulf War.

“[Mostly], we are getting old and dying,” Bentsen said.

Under 6452, counties would have had the ability to move the levy up and down without a need for an election every time. The legally allowable range for  the aid levy is between the 1.1/8 cent minimum and the 27 cents per $1,000 maximum – current collections are at the minimum.

Any increase would be specifically outlined and in most cases justification made to the Board of County Commissioners for final approval.

“We couldn’t do it just because we wanted to,” Bentsen said.

Kitsap County Commissioner Josh Brown noted that the community recently voiced its opinions on higher taxes for veteran aid by a strong majority vote against. As a result, the BOCC wouldn’t nessicarily have allowed an increase in property taxes to fund programs for indigent veterans.

The opposition to the proposed levy increase to fund veteran aid was led by local Republican party chair and veteran Jack Hamilton. The primary problem with the levy from his point of view was lack of trust that the county commissioners would do right by the money levied and spend it on veterans rather than use it in the general fund.

“It’s a valid criticism, they [the BOCC] did use the veterans assistance fund to balance the budget recently,” Rolfes said.

A veteran in need

Army veteran Glover “Leon” Ashlock, 73, served in the West German-Czechoslovakian border town of Fulda during the heady and tense days during the Cuban Missile Crisis – the height of the Cold War. After service, Ashlock worked until he was 71 – first construction then 30-years in the shipyard. After retirment in 1994, he worked on a local Christmas tree farm until last year.

Ashlock, a Port Orchard resident, is the kind of guy others have always gone to for help of any kind. It was hard on his strongman persona to find himself in need at the age of 72. After covering his share of the medical costs brought by three heart attacks, he and his wife Sandra’s savings were gone.

“Twenty percent of three heart attacks is a lot of money,” Sandra Ashlock said. “Checks went out one after another after another.”

The aging Cold Warrior sometimes sees himself as somehow less deserving than the men and women who fought the era’s hot war in Vietnam. Only with prodding will he allow that his duty as the “speed bump” to slow a Soviet attack through the famed Fulda approach was equally important to the United States.

Port Orchard resident and Army veteran Glover “Leon” Ashlock leans against a few tons of wood pellets stored in his garage. The stove fuel was bought with aid funds from the Kitsap County Veterans Assistance Program.

Low on money and no longer able to cut his own heating wood after decades of willing manual labor, Leon Ashlock finally needed help keeping his home warm for his 71-year-old wife.

“I hate to ask for help, it goes against what I stand for,” he said. “I’ve worked all my life, and we don’t have the resources to hire anyone to come and help us.”

Love for his wife pushed Ashlock to start asking for help, first, with the heat. Through the aid program Ashlock found help in the form of several tons of wood pellets. Someone else donated the stove to burn them.

In the balance of service and reward, Ashlock says the veterans assistance levy is nothing short of a “good deal,” a form of repayment for service by the few that benefits the many.

“If it weren’t for the veteran, we wouldn’t be a country,” he said.”They deserve everything they get.”

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