Cutting Veterans’ Services – It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Cutting Veterans’ Services – It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Karl Rohde, director, Putnam County Veterans Service Agency

In 1991, Governor Mario Cuomo attempted to reduce his New York State budget by cutting services to the Veterans of Putnam County.  Today, the legacy continues as his son and current NYS Governor, Andrew Cuomo, attempts a similar strategy.

First, a bit of history — Back in 1991 the New York Division of Veterans Affairs announced that they were going to close the Putnam County office for budgetary reasons.  The closing of the office was going to save about $50,000 out of a $5 Million Budget that had to be cut by $500,000.  Fortunately, Putnam succeeded in mobilizing its Veterans and won a reprieve. As part of the new deal, the Putnam County office would remain open, but the County would foot the bill to house the NY State Division Service officer, and provide secretarial assistance for the two days the service officer was on site.  In addition, the County would also provide clerical assistance on the other three days of the week to schedule appointments, as well as providing phone service and computer access at no charge to the State.

After the State’s second attempt to close the Putnam Office in April 2015 was thwarted, I formally requested, as Director of the Putnam County Veterans Service Agency and provider of free office space, clerical support and amenities to the NYS Division of Veterans Affairs, that we receive notification when and if the Putnam Office would be closed. That following January of 2016, the Division closed the office.  Putnam Veterans Services had to reschedule an estimated 50 Veteran client appointments to other dates at a location in Castle Point, which is about 25 miles from our office in Carmel.  Again, we fought and won to reopen our office, so our Veterans, many of whom are elderly and disabled, would not have to bear the burden of inconvenient, costly and unnecessary travel to meet with a Veterans Service Officer to apply for compensation due to military service.

The punishment continued in 2016 when the Division tried to limit Putnam to one day per week with a Veterans Service Officer.  That was also stopped when we proved the need in Putnam for at least two days per week, if not more.

Now in May of 2017, just weeks before Memorial Day, and the New York State Division, at the insistence of Governor Andrew Cuomo, is keen on denying services to the Veterans of Putnam County again.

In order to save money, the Putnam Office will be closed.  This is nonsense. The Division has to save $300,000 in the current budget.  Notwithstanding that the Governor wants to cut his budget on behalf of Veterans, this closing makes little sense.  Our Veterans Service Officer, Brennan Mahoney, will still be employed 5 days per week by the Division.  He will do all those days at Castle Point alongside another fulltime service officer at the same location.  The Veterans of Putnam, Northern Westchester and Southern Dutchess will now be forced to commute to Castle Point to see Brennan even though there is a second service officer already covering the Castle Point location – and where is the cost savings?  It should also be noted that while the clerk at Castle Point is paid by the State of New York, the clerk in Putnam County still costs the State of New York nothing.

The travel expense and inconvenience to these Veterans has not been considered in the least.  The age of the Veteran or the disability that makes travel difficult has not been weighed in this decision.

Why are these statewide cuts being aimed at the very group of people that the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs is mandated to serve?  To put a fine point on it, why is the Division targeting its own clients?  There are no suggested cut backs in management headcount or salary.  No mention of trying to lower the costs in areas where they rent and or lease office buildings.  Rather than a knee jerk response, why weren’t the cuts more thoughtfully vetted?

Veterans and family members who wish to learn answers to these questions should contact Eric J. Hesse, director, New York State Division of Veterans Affairs at (518) 474-6114.