Veterans say county Veterans' Service Office is "toxic"; State asked to investigate nonfeasance

The Cincinnati Post
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Steven Staniford, Air Force Veteran, speaks out on the "toxic" environment of denials at the Veterans' Service Office.Photo byICRC, Hamilton County November 9, 2023

Sometimes, throwing the baby out with the bath water is the only way to go. Steve Staniford, a Hamilton County disabled Veteran, believes the whole system at the Hamilton County Veterans' Service Office (HC VSO) is "toxic" and most everyone needs to go - and start over. "There is no way to rid this VSO of the rot that has infested the organization" for decades.

When Staniford, an Air Force Veteran, recovers from yet another surgery complicated by his injuries incurred during Operation Iraqi Freedom, he intends to be the change the county agency needs to better serve Veterans and their families. As a married, father of 2 living in Colerain, the VSO hasn't been there for him and his family. As it turns out, the VSO has let a lot of Veterans down. He is seeking to be named as the only Veteran under 45 on the VSO's 5-member governing board, the Veterans Service Commission. He is hopeful that the powers-that-be replace antiquated processes - and attitudes. But, today, he's in a battle just to help his fellow Veterans receive the services they were promised on the local homefront.

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Veterans Service Commissioner Bill Froehler and Veteran Officer Wooten promise improvements to the county commissioners.Photo byICRC, Hamilton County 11/09/2023

Craig McKee, also an Air Force Veteran, with WCPO's 9 News, has been reporting stories about local Vets through his Homefront series since 2018. This time, he stepped on a consequential landmine and blew up the plight of county Veterans seeking assistance from the Hamilton County Veterans Service Office. (HC VSO)

McKee uncovered the below facts that exposed systemic denial of assistance:

  • While Hamilton County has 3-times as many Veterans as neighboring Butler and Clermont counties, the HC VSO spends less than half as much on their Veterans.
  • The HC VSC spent only $930K so far this year while Clermont County spent $2.0M, and Butler County spent $1.8M
  • HC VSO has only 6 staff to serve Veterans, Clermont County has 11
  • The HC VSO is entitled to over $7M in funding yearly and only requested $1.2M in order to remain under a 10% threshold that would allow county commissioners to appoint more commissioners
  • Of the $930K spent this year: $478K was spent on staff salaries (including $123K to the executive director) and just $455K for office supplies, expenses, and assisting Veterans.
  • Over the last 5 years, the VSC rejected over $30M in allowable funding.
  • Neighboring counties have assisted Hamilton County Veterans who were denied services. Butler County alone assisted over 600 Hamilton County Vets

In a glaring example of the disparity in services, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the HC VSO only served 393 Veterans this year, while Clermont County has served 686 Veterans, despite Hamilton County having a population 4 times that of Clermont County.

The county's Veterans Service Commissioners proposed fixes to the problems that, according to numerous speakers at the public hearing held by the Hamilton County Board of County Commissioners, totally misses the mark. Through the VSC's Administrative Assistant, Pam Minser, they suggested: increasing marketing, possibly a new location, and better transportation services.

However, that isn't the problem.

They just don't get it.

The problem is the "toxic" mentality of the staff and leadership at the VSO, as stated by Stanifold. Most of the Veterans speaking out are not disturbed by being denied assistance, if they aren't - in fact - entitled to it, but all are upset with staff behavior that was "disrespectful," "condescending," and "arrogant", according to the 2 public hearings on the matter.

This mentality was instilled in the organization in the 1990s when the VSC developed a Policy Manual that focused on saving money for the county reserves by denying benefits to Veterans, instead of assisting them, according to Carrie Davis, an expert in administrative law and policy & procedure.

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Pam Minser, Veterans Service defended her actions to the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners.Photo byICRC, Hamilton County 11/09/2023

Minser insists, "We're following the law."

Davis, rebuts,

No, they're not. They are perverting the law through arbitrary and capricious policies that - today - are universally accepted as discriminatory and unconstitutional. They defy their purpose to assist Veterans in need through subjective evaluation of punitive criteria."

INVESTIGATION BY STATE DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS SERVICES

Davis references the archaic policies of the VSO in a report to the Ohio Director of Veteran Services, Deborah Ashenhurst, requesting an investigation under ORC 5902.02 (AA) that states:

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Ohio Veterans Services director Deborah Ashenhurst asked to conduct an investigation of the Hamilton County Veterans Service CommissionPhoto byState of Ohio, Department of Veterans Services, 11/09/2023
Duties of the Director of Veteran Services: (AA) Investigating complaints against county veterans services commissioners and county veterans service officers if the director reasonably believes the investigation to be appropriate and necessary;

McKee's news report establishes an unrefutable, substantial, and systemic denial of assistance to county Veterans contrary to its legislative purpose, according to Davis.

Citing to OAC 5902-1-08 (A), Davis alleges in her request for an investigation, "incompetence, misfeasance, malfeasance, nonfeasance,... on the part of a veterans service commissioner(s)" and requests the de-certification of 4 of the 5 members of the Veterans Service Commission in Hamilton County. The appointing judge of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas has been copied on the request under ORC 5901.03 "A judge of the court of common pleas may remove, for cause, any member of the commission...". The appointing judge has the responsibility, according to the Ohio Judicial Conference "under the powers to remove, for cause" section, the duty to oversee the HC VSC.

Davis points out in her request for an investigation the archaic and judgmental criteria incorporated into provisions of the HC VSC's Policy Manual as cause for denial of assistance:

  • Evidence that the applicant lives beyond the means of the household;
  • Chronic unemployment with no evidence of attempts to become employed;
  • Criminal conduct resulting in financial hardship, e.g., DUI, DUS, driving without insurance, shoplifting, (default in) child support payments etc.;
  • Poor financial management or decision-making.
  • Poor payment history by the claimant
  • misconduct.

Any of the above criteria is grounds for denying requests for assistance. Additionally, the manual limits assistance to the "current month due" and not for the amount to avoid disconnection, for example. However, the most outdated provision in the manual is that the VSO policy dictates that they will not pay a phone bill unless the applicant has a medical need. Alcoholism and addiction are considered willful misconduct and not as a symptom of PTSD or mental health disorder.

Davis' request for an investigation has been forwarded to Brian Peters, Deputy Legal Counsel for the Ohio director of Veterans Services. While the director may remove commissioners for the systemic denial of services and violation of Veterans' due process rights, the means of addressing the "toxic" environment at the VSO requires more than a change in faces, but a change in the mindset.





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