CLEARWATER — Early last year, military veterans and their advocates packed the Pinellas County Commission chambers and demanded action.
The Veterans Services Office that helps veterans navigate the federal bureaucracy to secure their benefits was understaffed, forcing veterans to wait too long and crippling the department's ability to reach out to veterans to make them aware of what's available to them. Temporary workers were brought in to help cut a backlog, but the problem is back, the Rev. Bob Swick told the County Commission during a budget workshop on Tuesday.
"We're back to where we were 18 months ago," said Swick, chairman of the Tampa Bay Veterans Alliance. "The fact of the matter is, people within our county don't even get into the system because the allocation right now doesn't allow the Veterans Service Office to fulfill its mandate. It's unconscionable."
Interim County Administrator Mark Woodard was already on top of the issue. Last week, Woodard sent a memo to commissioners outlining changes in store for the office. He elaborated on the plan Tuesday.
"I don't think we have well served our veterans over the last 18 to 24 months," Woodard said.
Among the changes:
• The office will become a separate program and budget reporting to Lynda Leedy, the executive director of Health and Human Services. As part of a past reorganization, the office had been tucked into the county's health program, with five layers of management between the office manager and the county administrator.
• Two veteran services officer positions that have remained vacant for months will be filled as soon as possible to bring the total number of full-time officers to five. One of those positions is a manager who will report directly to Leedy.
• The office will get another full-time administrative support worker to take some of the paperwork burden from veterans service officers so they can focus more of their time on service and outreach.
Bruce Moeller, Woodard's chief of staff, said it takes on average of 48 hours to return a veteran's call. The average wait time to see a service officer is about a week.
"We still think we can do much better than that," Moeller said.
Woodard said he is also including another $150,000 in next year's budget for the department to add personnel.
At least two commissioners, Norm Roche and John Morroni, said they'd like to see the budget bumped up more than $150,000 next year. The investment will pay off in benefit dollars flowing back into the county, Roche said.
"I think you hear the consensus of the board is that we want to get it fixed this time," Commissioner Ken Welch said to Swick and two others in the audience who spoke about the issue.
"We're smiling," Swick replied.
Commissioners also put a smile on Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's face Tuesday by directing county staffers to include an additional $10.7 million for his agency in the budget.
Last month, Gualtieri told the board he needs about $19 million over the next two years to increase the starting salary and address severe pay disparities among both sworn and civilian employees. His solution for sworn employees is a 16-level pay system that provides smaller salary increases in the early years, moderate increases in the middle years when it's crucial to retain deputies, then smaller increases in the later years.
Gualtieri said the agency also needs about $4 million to replace aging radios, computer equipment and patrol cars.
The board agreed in principle to tap a contingency fund of about $10 million to put toward Gualtieri's request and several other priorities, including: $2 million for the county's Business Technology Services department; $500,000 for the indigent dental care program; $433,000 to help the supervisor of elections in an election year; and $250,000 for the public defender's jail diversion program.
"We need to do what we can to make sure our Sheriff's Office is competitive in the region," Commissioner Janet Long said.
Gualtieri said he was thrilled and thankful. Now he has to crunch numbers to decide how to use the money if it holds through the budgeting process. He said critical operational needs must come first and the rest can be used to implement part of the pay plan.
"I've said repeatedly that it took a long time to get into this situation and it's going to take a long time to fix it," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.