The Butler County Veterans Services Commission is closing its Middletown office but hopes the change will enable them to serve their clients better while saving $227,000, the Journal-News reports.
The commission agreed to permanently shutter the satellite office this week, a facility that has been all-but dormant throughout the pandemic because of mandated restrictions. Executive Director Mike Farmer told the Journal-News they can save $197,000 in personnel costs for three staffers and around $30,000 for rent, internet and other expenses.
The board discussed leaving the building last fall but the commissioners were hesitant because the number of veterans served increased when they reinstated a Middletown location. In September Board President Chuck Weber was against closing the northern location; he now supports the move.
“We have a found a more efficient way of doing business,” Weber said. “COVID taught us that we could continue to help people but we had to modify the way we were doing it like working from home. The number has re-jumped into the 500s and I’m seeing that these guys are able to handle the load given these revised processes.”
The commission served 529 veterans in March, up from 407 the previous month. The board reopened the Middletown office in April 2017 after an 18-month hiatus due to staffing issues. The monthly veterans-served numbers have steadily climbed over the past three years not just because of the additional location but a blitz campaign through advertising and a big social media presence.
While the board is not affiliated with the Department of Veterans Affairs — it is an arm of county government — it offers services like emergency cash, assistance for veterans navigating the Veterans Affairs system, transportation to medical appointments, and help finding local services for legal issues to marriage counseling.
When the pandemic hit all in-office appointments with veterans were suspended and still are. The office has been handling everything by phone. Farmer said once face-to-face meetings are sanctioned by health officials they will resume that service in the Hamilton office as well as via phone or video conferencing.
“It is the veteran’s choice, once restrictions are lifted and we can see you face-to-face, that’s not going away,” Farmer said. “It’s just up to the caller how do you want us to serve you. Do you want to come in, do you prefer a phone call, do you prefer a video chat, how do you want us to help you.”
Prior to making this decision the vet board staff looked into the numbers and Chief Service Officer Matt Jones said his people can definitely handle more work with fewer people. They have five service officers and two benefits coordinators, prior to the pandemic they had six and three respectively because they had people stationed in Middletown.
In 2019, their highest service year ever, they helped a total of 6,673 veterans last year during the pandemic the number was 5,792. Jones said on the service work side they have been at around66% capacity, he’d like to see them at 75 to 80% but any higher than that becomes difficult. The veterans benefit side is also well below capacity.
Commissioners Bruce Jones and Tom Jeffers said the many of the people who were using the Middletown office were just going to see Farmer because he was the service officer before his promotion.
“As a business decision it was the smarter thing to do to close out Middletown,” Jones said. “We’ve closed it before and reopened if it became necessary. But to be honest I don’t think it ever will become necessary just because the way people communicate nowadays.”
Jeffers noted nothing is ever final.
“It’s going to work good, if we ever get to a thing where we’re busting at the seams and we can’t take care of people we’ll look at something new,” Jeffers said. “We feel confident about doing it.”