It is one thing to say that veterans matter, but it’s another thing entirely to put those words into action by actually designating programs and funds. City Council Members and even Mayor de Blasio have spoken words in support of the City’s veterans–but where are the funding and solutions? NYC has big issues to tackle, but a population of 224,000+ military veterans simply cannot and must not be overlooked. Yet it appears that veterans are to be ignored yet again with the revelation of the Mayor’s executive budget for July’s new fiscal year.
Here’s the thing: There is a Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA), but its budget is comparatively teeny tiny (less than $500k), and the current commissioner (de Blasio has yet to appoint a new one, as of this writing) takes up much of it with his $192,000 annual salary (which can be looked up here).
Compare with this the $250,000 grant that the Robin Hood Foundation made to MOVA to fund three veterans’ benefits counselors to work full-time to help bridge the enormous gap that exists for veterans still trying to receive the entitlements they earned through military service. Robin Hood funded this for one year only, and the City’s veterans will lose this critical counseling service if it is not picked up on budget. This is basically the only thing that MOVA does aside from promoting events planned by external organizations and showing up for the parties. Yet Mayor de Blasio’s budget proposal includes this $250k nowhere–meanwhile a do-nothing commissioner left over from the previous administration continues to earn nearly the full equivalent of this amount (and gobbling up more than a third of his agency’s entire annual budget).
I hate to say this in such strong words, but it’s genuinely the truth as I see it. Simply put, I’m offended. And I see this as yet another huge missed opportunity for NYC to lead the nation on making sure that veterans receive the benefits they earned at the local level and are fully integrated into our local communities. We keep expecting for Washington to ensure our veterans are doing okay–and meanwhile we have upwards of 22 veterans per day nationwide who take their own lives, not to mention the various catastrophes we’ve seen with VA medical centers and delays in processes that should be straightforward, like disability claims and education benefits. We have a small New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs headed by a smart, savvy former 10th Mountain Division officer, but they have limited reach in NYC. Veterans need advocates at the local level–and NYC simply has far too huge a population of veterans who need a voice and a helping hand up.
We’ve relied heavily on nonprofits–many of them ambitious new startups to serve the 18,000 (or more) Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who’ve come home or moved to NYC–to fill the gap left by bureaucratic inefficiencies and inadequacies. But realistically, donor enthusiasm will only last so long after all combat troops are withdrawn later this year. And shouldn’t it be the role of government anyway to ensure that government benefits for military service are appropriately managed? We all say we want to welcome veterans home, to honor the service of veterans of all generations, and to follow through and ensure veterans receive what they’ve earned and proper care for the wounds of war. Well, NYC–we’re just not getting it right. And it’s up to citizens to let the Mayor and City Council Members know that we expect better.
Senator Chuck Schumer held a press conference recently (sidenote: it is said that the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C., is between Sen. Schumer and a microphone) along with the United War Veterans Council to say that NYC needs to put on a welcome home parade for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, as it has following other military conflicts. I’m for this, once Operation Enduring Freedom ends (and likely becomes a smaller train/mentor operation under a different name). Mayor de Blasio said he’d like to see this as well, which is great. But. What about ongoing reintegration for these veterans, as well as advocacy and care for the rest of the City’s veterans? A parade would be nice, but honestly I’d prefer to see substance over show when it comes to veterans.
What substance exactly am I talking about?
A few quick points:
1. Continue the $250,000 per year funding of MOVA’s veterans’ benefits counselors. Easy, and well worth the money. Where should the money come from? Maybe start by trimming back on that $192,000 salary the commissioner gets for going to parties.
2. Implement recommendations made by NY MetroVets last year. Take a look at my post last year on the topic.
3. Make NYC veterans benefits/preferences on par with NY State’s. For example, the City does not have a veterans’ hiring preference like NY State (as well as the Federal government) does–and the largest employer in NYC is City government. That’s an easy fix that doesn’t cost a dime. NYC also does not have the same affordable housing preferences and tax waivers that NY State offers. Why hasn’t anyone inside of NYC government been advocating for this?
4. Track veteran homelessness in NYC. Currently, the only veteran homelessness numbers tracked by the City are what the Veterans Administration reports–from Washington, D.C. NYC has a Department of Homeless Services (DHS) that conducts an annual census of the City’s homeless population, and volunteers survey homeless persons for critical information that informs the services provided by the City. Yet nowhere on that survey is the question, “Did you ever serve in the military?” Homeless persons may be veterans, or they may have been dishonorably discharged years ago for PTSD-related behavioral problems (and thus not tracked by the VA). Yet NYC currently does not even seek to capture this crucial data.
That’s just my short list.
All of this is not to say NYC doesn’t love its veterans–it is evident to me so often in this great City that people from all walks of life genuinely care about veterans, their service, and their sacrifice. A tremendous number of New Yorkers–both veterans and civilians–are involved in Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) based in NYC, as well as an array of amazing nonprofits providing direct services and opportunities for veterans of all generations. It’s truly inspiring. Yet despite all of these important achievements, our City government should in no way be relieved of its responsibility to veterans.
Our City Council, under new leadership and with new Council Members, has done more this year thus far in speaking up for veterans, but their true commitment will be evident in the final budget that they pass this year. New City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has requested an additional $400,000 in funding for MOVA, as well as an additional $1 million toward some of the excellent community-based organizations mentioned above. Yet I’ve searched through the Mayor’s newly released budget–and these changes have not been incorporated.
I appreciate what City Council Members Eric Ulrich and Paul Vallone have done so far in bringing a greater sense of order and purpose to the City Council Committee on Veterans, particularly in their support of Sen. John Walsh’s Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. I attended their hearing last month on Resolution 159 (which, if passed, would express the City Council’s support for this Federal legislation), and this is an important, significant effort that I fully support. But it is just a start.
Council Members Ulrich and Vallone demonstrate a clear interest in the welfare of veterans. My hope is that this will continue into the budgetary process, and that other City Council Members follow their lead. We can and must do better by our City’s veterans. If you agree, please let Mayor de Blasio and your City Council Member know what you think.