San Diego County veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq may be welcomed home by state budget cuts that threaten programs that help them navigate complicated applications for federal benefits ranging from health care to college tuition.
Gov. Jerry Brown, confronting a $25.4 billion budget gap and stiff resistance to taxes, has spared few programs from the state’s spending retrenchment, including many that are politically popular.
Among those: County Veterans Service Offices and Operation Welcome Home, which combined stand to lose nearly $10 million, including about $300,000 that helps fund programs in San Diego County.
That may not sound like much money, but supporters point to annual performance reviews that show the program puts more federal benefits in the pockets of veterans who then spend it on rent, groceries, tuition and doctors.
County Veterans Service Offices in 2009-10 reported helping obtain $305.6 million in new aid, with $11.5 million of that going to veterans who live in San Diego County.
“That’s revenue generation the governor is throwing away in the name of saving money,” said Thomas Richards of Rancho Bernardo, a retired Marine who serves on the California Veterans Board.
Brown, briefly responding to that point following a speech last week, said, “We’ll take a look at that.”
Sentiment will clash with reality, however, when lawmakers take up the cuts as part of the $253 million budget for the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Veterans’ services is something we should support. The challenge is doing it this year when our budget deficit is so acute,” said state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego.
Kehoe listed programs, from health care for children to aid for the disabled, that will also see dollars disappear.
“I am not ready to say one program is worth more than the other,” she said.
Sen. Bob Huff of Walnut, the Senate’s leading Republican on budget issues, added, “Veterans are obviously something that everybody has a strong heart for. They risked everything for us. We certainly don’t want to abandon them in their hour of need.
“Having said that, you know there are no easy solutions. ... We just have to balance in the context of the rest of the budget.”
Some advocates say they will ask Brown to allow the veterans department to try and fund the programs by finding savings elsewhere, such as within the separate veterans home construction budget.
“We’re not blaming Governor Brown,” said Pete Conaty, who lobbies for veterans in Sacramento and supports that strategy. “We understand the budget constraints everyone has.”
The federal government spent more than $8 billion on veterans programs in California in fiscal year 2008-09, most of which went for pensions, compensation for disabilities and medical care. Of that, slightly more than $1 billion flowed into San Diego County.
If Brown’s budget stands, the San Diego veterans office could lose nearly a third of its $950,000 annual budget, according to Tom Splitgerber, the county veterans service officer in San Diego. That could require the county to impose steep cuts or replace the state revenue.
“All we can do is wait and see. You never know what’s going to happen,” Splitgerber said. San Diego County is home to about 228,000 veterans.
Splitgerber said the county has been quick to respond in the past. The county has service offices in San Diego, Escondido and Oceanside where eight workers and two contractors cumulatively field 22,000 phone calls a year and meet with 2,000 veterans annually.
San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn, the board chairman, said he cannot see the cash-strapped county stepping in to replace the lost revenues.
“It’s for services well-deserved, but I have to look at the entire county budget,” he said. “It’s a small amount of money ... but we have to live with the budget they give us.”
Veterans say county office staff is trained to handle the paperwork and stay current on changes in federal policies that can make securing benefits tricky.
“Veterans have to prove they are entitled to benefits. It’s not like Social Security, which is automatic,” said Conaty, the lobbyist.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has teams in regional centers, including one in San Diego, that help process applications, said Dave Bayard, a spokesman based in Los Angeles.
The department relies on other organizations to help reach veterans who need guidance: the Disabled American Veterans, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, among others.
“Obviously, the more people the better,” Bayard said.
Gary Rossio, co-chairman of the San Diego Veterans Advisory Council, said demand will continue to grow “with both wars going strong.”
“It’s going to be bad news if we can’t adequately support people who are defending our freedom,” said Rossio, who served in the Air Force.
Also, the future of Operation Welcome Home is in doubt if Brown’s plan is adopted. He would eliminate $2.6 million — part of the overall $10 million cut — and 18 positions that seek out veterans to match them with benefits.
Scaling back the state’s contribution could cast doubt on the future of a just-launched $3.3 million initiative by federal AmeriCorps teams to reinforce Operation Welcome Home.
Twenty-two of the 80 AmeriCorps workers are based in San Diego County.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
From the San Diego Union-Tribune:
Posted by BA Haller at 10:31 PM