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Clinton Township, Macomb Township

October 3, 2012

Veterans services department says millage has paid off

But improvements still needed, officials say

By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — When Kermit Harris first took over as director of Macomb County’s Department of Veterans Services, he said there was a 13-week backlog for veterans just hoping to see a counselor, the first step for veterans looking to file a claim with Department of Veterans Affairs.

That was before the veterans’ millage passed in 2008.

Since then, officials from the department say much has changed. The department has hired more counselors to guide veterans through the claims process, increased its outreach programs and services more veterans ever year.

“It is directly attributable to the millage,” Harris said.

When it first passed in 2008, the 0.04 mill levy brought more than $1 million into the department’s budget. Voters approved a six-year renewal of the millage in August.

Due to decreased home values, this year it is projected to bring in just over $900,000, Harris said. Unlike before the millage passed in 2008, the money cannot be touched by other county departments.

“Before, we were at the whims of the county commissioners,” said Laura Rios, a counselor with the Department of Veterans Services and a retired master sergeant from the U.S. Air Force.

The increased budget since 2008 also bolstered the department’s ability to reach out and find veterans who have fallen through the cracks between serving in the military and enrolling for VA benefits afterward.

Harris mandates that each counselor must do one outreach a week.

Rios visits homeless shelters, food pantries, churches and other places hoping to find veterans that have been missing out on their benefits since leaving the service.

During an outreach at the Hope Center food pantry, she found U.S. Navy veteran Paul Preisz, who served in Vietnam and is just now applying for his benefits.

“They all do great work down there,” said Preisz, who served aboard one of the first warships involved in the Vietnam War. “Other (veterans) I’ve talked to hold the highest regards for them.”

The millage also allows the department to pay out grants to veterans struggling to pay bills.

The year before the millage passed in 2007, the Department of Veterans Services paid out about $1,800 in relief grants. In 2011, it paid out $115,000.

Despite the improvements, there are additional steps the department wants to take, including increasing its staff levels. “Right now, we have the most veterans per counselor in the state,” Harris said.

The VA estimates that there are 57,488 veterans living in Macomb County. Harris said that number is based on veterans who actually file for claims. Harris believes the real number of veterans living in the county is closer to 80,000, and including Harris, the department has six accredited counselors servicing them.

Even when using the VA’s smaller figure, it leaves Macomb with one counselor for every 9,581 veterans.

Comparatively, Oakland County has 68,956 veterans, but twice as many counselors as Macomb, Harris said.

With that in mind, Harris said, another counselor is needed and will fit into the budget the millage provides.

Harris said the department also needs to better communicate with Michigan Air National Guard men and woman returning from combat duty. With Selfridge Air National Guard Base only a few miles down the road from their office, Rios and Harris say most of the new claims are coming from National Guard troops.

But right now, the department has no way of knowing when the guard units are returning from active-duty status in a combat zone back to reserve status. Rios said many guard veterans think the time for filing a claim is after they leave the guard.

Instead, she said, it is best for them to begin filing a claim as soon as they return.

“We’re working every day to get the word out,” Harris said.