Veterans back to the drawing board after loss of Prop 1

Proposition 1 failed Tuesday.

By Wednesday, members of the Kitsap County Veterans Advisory board gathered to decide on their next course of action to find funds for an increasing number of indigent veterans to be served in Kitsap County.

“The levy got shot down. We’re right back where we were," said Leif Bentsen, Kitsap County Human Services planner. "We didn’t lose anything, just didn’t gain anything either,”

But for others, particularly veterans, the loss of the levy was a more emotional experience. When Wednesday's meeting opened up to public comment, local veterans expressed their discontent over the levy language, particularly in linking veterans issues with general human services which includes mental health, homelessness, and other topics not specific to veterans.

Frustration centered on the fact that the proposition linked all the county's human services with veterans’ needs and confused the public. That set the levy up for failure from the start.

“Veterans have been short-sheeted long enough,” said Joel Courreges of Disabled American Veterans.

However, Mark Lowe, board member, disagreed that human services dragged the levy down.

“We actually got a lot of push back when vets were tacked on. The public said, ‘You’re just using vets to push this through,” said Lowe.

Board member Roth Hafer explained to disgruntled attendees that the linkage was actually intended to help the veteran community, especially those that need help but cannot qualify for veteran status.

According to Hafer, under the revised code of Washington, a great number of indigent veterans in Kitsap county do not have access to title 38 veterans’ relief.

Depending on the type of discharge, they may not qualify as veterans at all. The umbrella of Prop 1 would have covered all types of veterans.

“It’s discrimination against the vets that we were looking to get around,” said Hafer.

Courreges also pointed to the souring of public opinion following the 2010 funding switch as a reason for failure. In 2010, a $300,000 "surplus" in the Veterans’ Assistance Fund was transferred to Kitsap County's general operations budget – in accordance with state law.

“The levy failed because we couldn’t get the need across to the people. All they see is that the veterans gave up their yearly fund [to the general fund] because they had too much money. But someone is to blame here because the money is now gone. What did they do with it? $335,000 was given away,” said Courreges.

Hafer explained that the 2010 veterans fund was artificially inflated by a rise in property values and the state grant for “carte blanche” indigent burials.

“It ballooned up to a million, but those two factors just do not exist anymore,” said Hafer.

“Legislation has got to change in order to better protect the fund,” agreed Lowe.

“It’s our responsibility to bring something to the commissioners,” said Courreges.

Moving forward, the board is looking at two options to cover funding they say will fall below needs next year, special fund raising and asking for an increase of one tenth of a percent of sales tax.

The sales tax option is authorized under state legislation for use in “chemical dependency or mental health treatment services or therapeutic courts.”

One tenth of 1 percent would raise approximately $3.1 million for veterans fund. It can be approved by a vote of the Board of County Commissioners or a popular vote.

Mason County Commissioners recently voted to take the one tenth option for mental health services in their county after a 2009 move to balance their general budget with "surplus funds."

According to Courreges and several supporting board members, a good appropriation of part of these funds would be the establishment of the much-discussed veterans' court in Bremerton.

Mark San Souci, Northwest liaison for the Department of Defense, informed the board that veterans' courts have gained the interest of senators and legislators around the county who are interested in sponsoring bills in the Senate and the House.

Models for veterans' courts in Oregon, Idaho, and throughout Washington have started as grassroots movements at the city level. The success of these courts has encouraged many veterans associations.

“Our efforts are at 10,000 to 20,000 feet up now, but you all are on the ground level, making things happen. County action is leading the state,” said San Souci.

Lowe suggested that the board continue discussions of the sales tax option and using a portion of it for veterans courts and then revisit the issue at their December meeting.

“There is anger on both sides and we need to a cool down period of 30 days or so, get the word back from the streets before approaching the public with action,” said Lowe.



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