Veterans in Hernando in no mood to see cut in their services

Expect a lively afternoon when the participants are color coordinated; the women from the WAC Veterans Association in yellow and the men from Wellington Veterans Club in red.

It would become the theme of the day. Red T-shirts, red-faced emotions, red ink.

About 30 people filled the meeting room at the East Hernando Branch Library in Ridge Manor four days ago and many peppered County Administrator David Hamilton with questions, but more so with their own — often unflattering — opinions of county government.

"I don't trust you guys,'' veteran Bob Rhinehart said bluntly.

That was one of the nicer assessments. Incompetent, over-compensated and spending like drunken sailors were some other attributes.

Veterans are a constituency that merits more attention, not less, the attendees said during the last of three town hall meetings to collect public input on looming spending decisions.

Hernando County currently spends $185,000 annually on veterans services. Last month, the county staff presented commissioners with a laundry list of all government services, the associated costs and whether the program was state or federally mandated (indigent health care); a product of local ordinances (code enforcement); a quality of life attribute (parks and libraries) or add-ons (the Cannery and a county contribution to Guardian Ad Litem).

Veterans service is characterized as a quality of life program. As with all services, the question becomes: The quality of life for whom?

There are 26,000 veterans in Hernando County. They are the recipients of $73 million worth of U.S. benefits and the veterans don't mind telling you it was the county's veterans services officers who helped some of them obtain their entitlement. All told, the county veterans office provided 24,000 assists last year.

So, cutting this service is not particularly popular with lot of people. Mess with the veterans services, one man pledged, and "you're on notice — we will un-elect every one of the county commissioners.''

Getting his bosses fired, clearly, is not the intention of Hamilton. Balancing a 2011 budget that is projecting an $8.2 million deficit is his task. He offers plenty of qualifiers. There is no recommendation to cut veterans services. Most likely, the department might have to make do with $10,000 less next year. That is 95 percent of what it's getting now.

And here is where the financial difficulties confronting county government come into clarity. The 10 grand is still too much; veterans services should be held harmless, the group chimed. Some offered their own ideas:

Cut the county legal staff. Cut your own salary. Cut the commission's salary. Ditch the Cannery or make it self sufficient. Lean on constitutional officers. Charge to use the parks.

Even following that guidance, however, does not solve the problem.

"I've got to find a way to chop a lot of money in a hurry,'' Hamilton said.

If a $10,000 reduction can bring such an emotional response, how will a politically squeamish commission react during an election year to more painful suggestions? To his credit, Commissioner Jim Adkins attended the session, took the criticism and promised to try to improve veterans services through expanded use of volunteers. If you've got ideas, share them, he said.

Unfortunately, Adkins had to leave. It would have been beneficial for him to hear the sentiment of Jim Heltsley of Seven Hills who spoke after comments from the county's library staff. They worried about burning through grant money to balance the library budget and wonder what happens when the grants dry up because the county cut its contributions.

Clad in his red veterans shirt, Heltsley said his group already had been briefed on the falling property values and the resulting squeeze on the county budget. He understood perfectly.

"In our society, we want something for nothing,'' said Heltsley. "I don't want to pay taxes, but I'd gladly pay more than I pay now to keep the libraries and keep the recreation and some of these other things.

"These add-ons,'' he said, "are some of the best things in life.''

Veterans in Hernando in no mood to see cut in their services 05/22/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 22, 2010 11:18am]

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