The Butler County Veterans Service Commission helped more people than ever before last year and has increased service to veterans by 141 percent since 2002.
The board started tracking the number of veterans served almost 20 years ago, in 2002. The monthly average was 230, with 2,761 vets helped overall, according to the Journal-News.
Last year, the average was 556 for a total of 6,673, which was 387 more than the previous year.
The board, an arm of county government, offers emergency cash, helps veterans navigate the Veterans Administration system, arranges and pays for transportation to medical appointments and finds local services for everything from legal issues to marriage counseling.
As of Dec. 11, the board spent $1.3 million on direct financial assistance to veterans in 2019, including help with housing costs, food, utilities and other expenses and transportation to medical appointments. Service officers made 26,053 contacts — some individual veterans may have been helped multiple times — with vets through office visits, email and phone calls, including help in filling out forms and filing new VA claims. That was 239 more than the previous year.
Executive Director Caroline Dineen said the federal government has loosened some restrictions on benefits, which has helped that uptick. That includes the MISSION Act, which allows veterans to seek outside care if they cannot be served as a VA medical facility when needed.
“I think that’s attracted more people to find out what VA benefits they may be eligible for,” she said.
She said the government is also extending some benefits to Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. That has led to more questions from local vets.
“Even though we don’t know how it’s going to be paid out, we’re trying to get them in to get those claims filed so that they qualify for possibly any back pay,” Dineen said.
The board approved a $3.1 million budget for this year, and more than half of it ($1.73 million) will fund direct services to veterans, like transportation and financial and food assistance. The board continues to spend on advertising, to boost knowledge of its existence and ability to help.
For years, previous board members fought over whether to advertise the commission’s services. The board has an advertising budget of $175,000 to buy radio spots on several radio stations and newspaper ads this year. The board now also engages in many more person-to-person outreach activities.
Board President Chuck Weber said he is proud the board has been able to reach more people, but their job is far from over.
“I don’t want to let pride get in the way of wanting to keep the momentum up, keeping the ball rolling,” Weber said. “I think that’s our biggest challenge, is not to get too comfortable with the numbers, to stay on it and apply ourselves as we have the past the few years. And always, always look for and recognize new opportunities to outreach.”
The commission, which is responsible for helping about 26,000 veterans, is funded by a percentage of the general fund millage the legislature carved out to help veterans. Revenues from the millage got a boost because property taxes are up, so the board expects about $3.8 million in revenue, an additional $400,000, for this year. Unspent revenues are returned to the county’s general fund.