Commentary: Prioritize veterans in Santa Cruz County
by Terry McKinney
Jun 03, 2011 | 2706 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Having just passed Memorial Day, I want to thank the community for remembering Veterans. I think it is fitting that we contemplate the high price of freedom and have a sense of awe and respect for the service members that gave their lives for our freedoms and for the veterans who have served our country. I would hope that our respect and admiration goes beyond ceremonies, to help and encourage veterans as they return to Santa Cruz County (a county that is not always veteran friendly).

As a member of several veteran organizations, it often feels like veterans are thanking themselves because the community has forgotten them. It is this feeling of being forgotten that I wish to elaborate upon.

Veteran services and benefits are usually acquired through the federal Veterans Administration, the VA. Veterans gain access to these benefits and services by going to county programs such as the Veterans Service Office and the County Mental Health Department. Statistics clearly show that states that invest in their Veteran Service Office programs get the most services from the Veterans Administration. California has the largest veteran population in the country. But, California lags behind other states such as Florida and Texas in receiving VA money. Florida and Texas have nearly 40 percent more Veteran Service Officers per capita than California to help their veterans get more money. Veteran Service Officers help veterans navigate through the maze of paper work that the VA requires. Without the help of a Veteran Services Officer a veteran is not able to apply for veteran benefits and services. In Santa Cruz County, the Veterans Service Office staff has been cut back more than any other department in the county. In five years the staffing levels have dropped between 50 and 60 percent. The Watsonville office has gone from one full time staff person, 5 days a week, to one staff person for a half day per week. The Santa Cruz office has been moved from its easily accessible downtown location at the Veterans Memorial Building to a hidden office behind locked doors in the Emeline complex. As a result the number of clients served has plummeted.

In 2006 California passed the Mental Health Service Act which taxed those making more than $1 million and distributed the money to each county based on six areas of need. Each county was tasked with prioritizing how they intended to use this money. Of the $10 to $20 million dollars Santa Cruz County received, only approximately $50,000 went to veterans services. That’s less than 0.5 percent.

In October 2009, the county finished a fourth planning session for the Mental Health Service Act for Capital improvements. They had the opportunity to extend some of these funds towards building improvements at the Veterans Memorial Building, but instead chose to allocate $2,359,650 towards information and technology needs and $786,550 towards the renovation of a clinics reception area. No veterans were allowed on the planning committee that may this recommendation.

In January of 2010 the county closed the Veterans Memorial Building claiming that they did not have the funds to fix the problems with the building. In March of this year the county again had the opportunity to redirect these funds towards the Veterans Memorial Building but declined to do so. It seems it is more important to have county staff equipped with Blackberries and iPads than to open a building that provides services, benefits, and meeting space for veterans and their families. Our young men and women serve our country in the military, fight in wars, face unbelievable horrors on the battlefield and return home alone, with no support from this county to help them take care of their basic needs like finding a home, a job, health care, or education. Families are torn apart by post traumatic stress, with no where to go to help them understand and cope with the difficulties.

On November 11, 1932 the Veteran’s Memorial Building was dedicated to war heroes. As think about Memorial Day, we honor our fallen heroes. The future of the Santa Cruz Veterans Memorial Building to provide services for returning veterans, office space for veteran organizations and support for veteran families depends on the public spirit and civic cooperation of Santa Cruz County. Please help us get our building open.

Terry McKinney is a Scotts Valley resident and the Vice President Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building Board of Trustees. He serves as the Commander of American Legion Santa Cruz Post 64. Read his full commentary online at www.pressbanner.com.

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