NORTH ADAMS -- During last winter's harsh cold, a local veteran who had fallen on hard times resorted to filling his heating oil tank, gallon by gallon, with the diesel fuel he bought at a gas station.
In stepped the city's veterans agent, Stephen Roy, who provided the emergency heating assistance benefits to the veteran who needed them.
As the need to help veterans grows, the amount of money North Adams budgets for veterans benefits has more than quadrupled in the past five years, going from roughly $50,000 in fiscal 2010 to $750,000 in the mayor's proposed fiscal 2015 budget.
Although the city is reimbursed at a rate of 75 percent by the state for the veterans benefits it pays out, city officials point out it's often the poorest and least able to pay municipalities that are saddled with the highest veteran payments. With dwindling reserves and a $620,000 budget deficit heading into fiscal 2015, Mayor Richard Alcombright says it's time for the state government to rethink how towns are reimbursed for veterans services.
Some relief could be coming next year in the form of a $1 million grant to Soldier On, $500,000 of which will be devoted to temporary assistance for veterans in Berkshire County, according to Soldier On CEO Jack Downing. The grant through the department of Veterans Affairs to Soldier On, a nonprofit based in Leeds and Pittsfield, has not been formally announced.
The sharp increases in North Adams' benefits can largely be attributed to a stagnant local economy, rising medical costs and the ineffectiveness of the federal programs such as Medicaid in paying for them, and the return of veterans from foreign wars, according to Roy.
The rising number of claims can also be attributed to Roy himself who, since being hired in 2011, has essentially turned the city's veterans office into an outreach center, according to Alcombright. Roy, who also serves as the agent to Florida, Adams, Williamstown, and Savoy, staunchly defends the right of all veterans to receive the benefits they're entitled under state and federal laws.
When Roy started in 2011, he had about 48 "active cases" in North Adams, he said. That number has nearly doubled in 2014, and now hovers at about 85. In all of Roy's five towns combined, he has 132 active cases.
Roy argues that Social Security, Medicaid, and disability benefits many veterans or their widows are living on just don't cut it in today's health care market -- and under state law, these folks are entitled to benefits.
As of June 10, the veterans office's skyrocketing monthly payouts totaled $47,874, including $27,027 for the disabled or unemployed, $8,523 in fuel assistance and $11,624 in direct medical costs.
For example, Roy was recently able to assist one widower of a veteran, who lives on a low, fixed income, replace her dentures for the first time in 30 years. Earlier this year, Roy helped an older veteran buy a new pair of prescription glasses for the first time in years.
All of these are benefits that veterans are entitled to in Massachusetts. Roy points out that the state would reject any payments not allowed under the law.
"Every month you'll see I have zero [payments] denied," Roy said.
The city administration contends that Massachusetts could provide a 100 percent reimbursement for veterans benefits. If such a policy were to be adopted in the commonwealth, the city of North Adams would save a projected $187,500, after reimbursements in fiscal 2015. If the state were to also compensate administrative costs, North Adams would save nearly $40,000. Roy is paid $35,000 annually and his assistant will earn about $25,000, but the towns that share his services contribute $20,627 toward his salary.
Funding benefits for veterans is "a moral and financial responsibility ... and a burden," Alcombright said. "There's got to be a better [way]."
Alcombright said he hopes to work with state legislators in the next year to rework the reimbursement formula.
"They have to find a way to help us fund it better," he said.
Roy is not confident that the reimbursement rate will change any time soon.
State Department of Veteran Services Secretary Coleman Nee said he understands the concerns of municipalities with regards to the costs, and noted the DVS worked this year to get reimbursement to 100 percent for homeless veterans.
Nee contends municipal government is a "critical" component of administering veteran aid in Massachusetts, a tradition that stretches back as far as the Civil War.
However, Nee said, "any good program requires continuous evaluation, and the department is more than happy to work with municipalities and the Legislature to explore more options to offset municipal costs."
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, says North Adams isn't alone.
"We've seen in recent years a significant increase in the costs statewide," Beckwith said. Veterans benefits "are really the only general social service benefit that has remained at the local level."
Beckwith argues that the system should be adjusted to at least proactively reimburse states upfront, instead of forcing them to wait until the end of the year. This system causes municipalities across the state to tie up more money in their budget then will ever actually be spent.
"It would make sense for the state to provide an upfront reimbursement"
The mayor's proposed budget allocates $750,000 toward veterans benefits. According to City Administrator Michael Canales, the administration was forced to budget a "very aggressive number" because its reserve accounts are almost entirely drained. If the veterans payments came in over budget in 2015, the city would likely have no way to pay its remaining balance.
In the mayor's proposed budget, the city has also extended the hours of Roy's assistant, who was brought on part-time within the last year. Like Roy's position, the assistant's is not reimbursed by the state. Assistant Tina Samson currently works 191 2 hours a week, because 20 hours would have qualified her for benefits. Bringing Samson on full-time will bring the office up to state staffing compliance standards.
"Now I finally have competent, wonderful staffing," Roy said. He said he's begun to make a dent in his backed-up work and will be able to improve outreach to veterans who might not be able to make it into the office.
Though he realized the strain the additional benefits have on the financially challenged city government, Roy said it's his job to provide the maximum benefits to which a veteran is entitled.
"The more expensive I am to the city, I believe the better job I'm doing," Roy said.
The long-term solution to the problem, Roy said, is creating gainful employment opportunities in the Northern Berkshires.
"As the economy flounders, [veterans] end up here," Roy said.
Downing, the head of Soldier On, sees the increase in local veterans benefits as being due to "the combination of the economy and vets becoming aware that there are very special benefits available to all veterans in Massachusetts."
The federal Veterans Administration's failure to provide a streamlined benefits system also plays a role, according to Downing.
"When people come in for benefits [locally], they are also encouraged to apply for VA benefits. That process is so long and so tedious, most veterans give up before it ever happens," Downing said.
But with a potential influx in funding on the horizon, Downing said Soldier On could have three or four case workers on the ground in Berkshire County, working in hand with local veterans agents.
A pervasive issue amongst veterans in the region is long-term unemployment, according to Roy. Many veterans were given highly technical training in the service, but their skills don't necessarily match up exactly with the private sector. These veterans fall between being over qualified for many minimum wage jobs but not properly qualified for the jobs in their field.
The most recent state data shows North Adams with an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent, but Roy estimates the number for veterans is much higher.
With plans for military downsizing and withdrawal of troops from the Middle East, the number of veterans applying for benefits isn't likely to decrease any time soon, according to Roy.
"The influx, I think, is going to continue in areas where we have limited economic opportunity," Downing said.