Veterans returning home to Santa Barbara County may have fewer places to seek help, if cuts go forward as planned to shutter the majority of veteran services offices.
There are more than 25,000 veterans in Santa Barbara County alone, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and only three benefit offices and fewer employees that can help vets sift through the byzantine system of documentation required to receive benefits they may be owed.
Currently, two veteran services officers work to process hundreds of cases. Last year alone, the county processed 1,542 veteran claims across the county, resulting in $9.1 million in benefits for vets and their families, according to Harry Hagen, Treasurer-Tax Collector and Public Administrator for the County of Santa Barbara.
But one of those positions would be cut in an effort to hack away at the county’s budget gap.
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Two of the offices would be shuttered, and though a third office in Santa Maria would remain open, the volume at that location would increase exponentially.
That workload has raised concern with local veterans, including Raymond Morua.
An Iraq War veteran, Morua has been advocating for veterans rights, and is even in the middle of starting his own nonprofit group, aptly named At Ease, to help returning soldiers transition to civilian life.
The county cuts would exacerbate an already broken federal system, he said, adding that the VA is backlogged by 1 million cases.
“A lot of these veterans are disabled, and some are homeless,” he said.
Many others don’t have the ability to go through the strenuous process of applying for benefits themselves in the wake of the emotional trauma of war, post traumatic stress disorder and the like.
“For a lot of these vets out there, these VSOs are the only way to claim their benefits,” he said, adding that once those claims are filed by a VSO, it can take anywhere from a year to more than a decade to see those benefits. “If you’re lucky, it takes a year. To cut a position [in the county] is going to clog the line more.
“It’s not the thing to do. I understand the county is low on money, but they need to find another way to do this.”
Budget talks began Monday, and the supervisors are in the midst of hearing from each department.
Veterans Services falls within the county’s public assistance division, under the umbrella of the county tax-collectors office, along with the public guardian and ProPay services. They aren’t funded by the federal VA, and the majority of the funding for the department comes the general fund, with the rest coming from minor sources such as veteran license plate sales.
In addition to the veteran office closures, other human services cuts are going before the supervisors that, if passed, will have a significant impact.
ProPay, a program that helps pay the bills of 300 mentally-ill patients who are unable to manage their personal finances, would be completely eliminated, according to the cuts recommended by the CEO’s office.
Funding for the county’s Human Services Commission also would be eliminated.
The county’s Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services department is also mulling reducing its homeless-related contracts, as well as reducing contracted psychiatric inpatient beds.
The budget talks for all of these departments and cuts will begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday on the fourth-floor Board Hearing Room of the County Administration Building, 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara.