Sunday, December 6, 2009 3:45 AM
By Barbara Carmen
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
The agency that Franklin County military veterans turn to for help has given its executives raises of 66 percent to 80 percent since 2005 -- unbudgeted increases that now are threatening to drain money away from veterans.
Leaders of the Franklin County Veterans Service Commission say the raises are justified.
"We're doing an outstanding job," said board member Carl W. Swisher, a Navy veteran who represents the American Legion.
The agency, based at Veterans Memorial, offers emergency help such as subsidies for rent, medical bills and food to military members, veterans and their dependents.
Veterans Service officers also help veterans apply for federal, state and local benefits such as disability payments.
But hundreds of frustrated veterans are pouring into agencies in neighboring counties for help that should be available at home.
Rebecca Lee, director of the Pickaway County agency, said one-third of her clients now come from Franklin County. Of the 3,452 people her office is helping, 1,087 are coming from Franklin County to get help.
"We have a $500,000 budget and five employees," she said, noting that Franklin County has a nearly $5 million budget and 20 employees. The state estimates that Pickaway County has about 5,000 veterans; Franklin County, 77,000.
Elected officials in Franklin County, who control the Veterans Service budget but not its operations, are outraged by these and a list of other complaints, including poor accounting controls that might have opened the door for abuses by two employees accused of theft.
"What I hear," county Commissioner John O'Grady said, "is that we've got employees under indictment, veterans who aren't being served, and they've got an administrative request for exorbitant raises that weren't budgeted."
He and other commissioners said they don't have the power to resolve veterans' complaints, but they are thinking about these issues as they plan the 2010 budget.
"I, for one, am not going to fund any questionable -- if not poor -- management decisions," O'Grady said.
Franklin County commissioners discovered only weeks ago that the Veterans Service had granted huge raises to top staff members; agency leaders came to them to say they'd exhausted the 2009 payroll account and were on the verge of being unable to issue paychecks.
Their plan to cover the shortage drew disbelief: They asked to take money from the account set up to provide food, rent subsidies and other emergency services to veterans.
Franklin County commissioners quickly transferred money from their own contingency account to cover most of the $128,424 payroll shortfall. But county leaders insisted that not a single dollar for big raises will come at the expense of needy veterans.
Some expenses, County Administrator Don L. Brown said, are "forgivable." The agency, for example, paid out $6,730 in overtime and spent $43,219 to hire an additional employee without notifying commissioners.
But $35,590 of this year's gap stems from raises for the three executives. Since 2005, the Veterans Commission has increased Director Douglas E. Lay's annual salary 66 percent, to $92,102. His financial officer, John Warrix, picked up a 69 percent raise during that period, to $72,823. And their administrative clerk-typist, Angela Cline, got an 80 percent raise, to $48,764.
This year, each picked up 12 percent raises, an unbudgeted outlay. Unionized employees got 3.5 percent negotiated raises.
Swisher said his board, not the executive staff, proposed the raises.
"We did this on our own," Swisher said. "We based it on other directors' salaries (in Ohio). We felt they deserved a raise because of the type of work they did."
Their office, which helped 17,000 veterans last year, is working harder, Veterans Service leaders said. The bad economy and a new batch of veterans from America's current wars have bumped up demand this year by 32 percent.
The director of Cuyahoga County's agency earns $120,783 a year, and Hamilton County's earns $94,279, according to officials there. Those agencies, however, have either much larger budgets or help nearly 50 percent more veterans than Franklin County's.
In 2006, the county had hired the Archer Group to determine appropriate pay scales; Veterans Service employees were underpaid at the time, it found. Each was brought up to scale by 2007, commissioners said. Now, however, all three are making more than 50 percent above the top of the scale the consultant proposed for 2009.
"They decided to go over their budget and then not tell us," county Commissioner Marilyn Brown said. "And, to cover their raises, they want to take the money out of (the fund for) services to veterans. That's what makes me so angry.
"I think that's the ultimate in irresponsibility."
While the Veterans Service wants to spend client-services money to cover their raises, veterans already are complaining that the agency isn't doing enough to help them.
"We're swamped with Franklin County veterans," said Lee, the Pickaway County official. She also is director of the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers.
"We used to see some, but honestly, in the last three to four years, it's become overwhelming. We'll help anyone who walks in the door, but we've had to start asking, 'Have you even made an effort to contact the Franklin County Veterans Service Office?'
"They tell us they're so frustrated because they're spinning their wheels down there" in Columbus.
Ed Mohler, director of the Fairfield County's veterans service agency, has heard similar complaints.
"The main complaint is that it takes so long to get in. They line up. They wait. They only take so many a day," Mohler said.
He said he doesn't count how many of his clients come from Franklin County.
Lay said he doesn't know why Franklin County veterans would drive elsewhere. His board members suggest that some simply are disgruntled because their requests for money have been rejected.
But Lee asked, "If Doug Lay is doing such a wonderful job, why are vets fleeing to other counties for help?"
The Veterans Service Commission, established by a Civil War-era law, is guaranteed a cut of county property taxes. But elected officials have little authority over the agency.
The Franklin County Common Pleas Court appoints the five commissioners, who represent military organizations and are appointed to five-year terms. The court can remove a commissioner "for cause" under Ohio law, but the judge must grant a hearing unless there is a criminal conviction involved.
Otherwise, "we have no oversight at all" after board members are appointed, said Judge Guy Reece, the court's administrative judge. Reece does meet with the group occasionally to urge them to follow policy and be consistent.
Judge Charles A. Schneider, who will become administrative judge in January, agreed: "We don't manage, and we have no control over the budget.
"Is that a good business model? Probably not."
The loss of stacks of grocery cards, meant to feed hungry veterans, points out what both Lay and Franklin County commissioners say are problems with safeguards and procedures in the agency.
Lay reported the thefts in August. But the cards were being taken for nearly a year, according to an indictment of one employee.
Gloria J. Woodard, a service officer whose job included helping veterans get emergency groceries, is accused of forging county records to steal Kroger gift cards.
"The amount alleged to have been taken through this scheme is $11,250," said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien.
Woodard pleaded not guilty, and her trial is set for Feb. 9. Her attorney, Frederick Moses, declined to comment about the charges but said more information will come out.
"She has a very long history of service with the military and the Veterans Service Commission," Moses said. "And she is really a good person."
Lay said agency leaders are working to devise better safeguards. Until then, the cards have been removed from the agency's two neighborhood offices, 314 N. Wilson Rd. and 1055 Mount Vernon Rd. Veterans can get them only at the main office near Downtown.
O'Brien said theft-in-office charges for "a similar scheme" are pending against a second Franklin County Veteran Services Commission employee. That worker is on paid administrative leave.
Vets agency ripped for raises
Stealing food cards, huge raises, this is the type of behavior that makes people mad and think how the veterans who have been betrayed feel. Veterans should not be able to pick and choose which county office they go to, they should use the office where their home is, plain and simple.....
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Sunday, December 6, 2009 3:45 AM