Relief for veterans
Editor’s note: This story is the third in a month-long series of articles highlighting the work of the Marquette County Veterans Affairs Department’s impact on Marquette County veterans. Northern Michigan University student Cali Hunter, who works at the MCDVA, contributed to this article. The segments will run on consecutive Mondays.
MARQUETTE — When bills pile up, the rent or mortgage is due or the family car breaks down and the money just isn’t there … relief is priceless.
For veterans in Marquette County, relief from financial pressures can come in the form of the Soldier Sailor Relief Act.
As a state-mandated program administered by the Marquette County Department of Veterans’ Affairs Committee — a group of five veterans appointed by the Marquette County Board — SSRA provides emergency funds to eligible local veterans who are facing financial hardships.
The relief fund was initially established in 1899 by Michigan Public Act 214.
The act defines eligible relief recipients as “honorably discharged indigent members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and women’s auxiliaries and the indigent spouses, minor children, and parents of each indigent or deceased member who served during a period of war.”
Veterans and eligible dependents can either fill out an application at the Marquette DVA office or they can find it on the MCDVA website. Applicants must provide proof of military service, proof of residence in Marquette County, and evidence of emergent need, the site states.
Complete applications are then presented to the Marquette County Department of Veterans’ Affairs Committee, MCDVA Veterans Service Officer Craig Salo said.
It is then the committee’s sole decision to approve or disapprove the application.
Salo said he and members of his office staff work closely with veterans to present all the facts related to a relief request before submitting it for MCDVAC consideration.
“The Veterans Affairs Committee has done an excellent job executing their respective responsibilities under Michigan Public Act 214 to best support eligible veterans with emergent needs,” Salo said. “Our office works directly with eligible veterans to prepare relief applications and ensure all of the required support documentation is in order. This is a tremendous responsibility and it can be challenging attempting to best balance the needs of our veterans and the limitations of our annual budget.”
George LaBlonde III, chairman of the Marquette County Department of Veterans Affairs Committee, said it’s very rewarding to be able to help local veterans.
“It’s great to be a part of a committee that provides support to our veterans,” he said. “In a time of need, that can be a critical turning point in their lives.”
The need for assistance through SSRF this year has been much greater than the county had originally budgeted for.
The Soldier Sailor Relief Fund was originally allotted $7,500 in Marquette County’s 2017 budget, according to the Marquette County Board of Commissioners April 11 meeting minutes.
The fund had been depleted by that date, the minutes state, causing the Veterans Affairs Committee to request additional funds.
The MCBC unanimously approved a $22,900 budget increase to the 2017 SSRF during the meeting, with $12,900 from SSRF equity and $10,000 transferred from the Veterans Affairs Budget, which is funded by a special millage.
Marquette County Administrator Scott Erbisch said increasing the SSRF for this year using partial funding from the MCVA budget was an appropriate solution from a MCBC perspective.
“The county is currently levying the maximum amount for general operating. A portion of this levy is directed to the Soldiers and Sailors Relief fund,” Erbisch said in an email. “The County believes this fulfills the legal obligation of the Act 214 since there is no statutory minimum amount that must be levied towards the Soldiers and Sailors Relief fund.”
Erbisch said if the board wanted to apportion up to one-tenth of general operating as per Act 214, it may affect other department funding levels, the matter
“In the Legal Opinion dated May 19, 2017, Civil Counsel did review the ability to also use the Vetrans Affairs Millage funds for Soldiers and Soldiers expenditures,” Erbisch said.
He said the if the Veterans Affairs Committee does not agree with the decision, they may seek an Attorney General’s opinion.
Marquette County Commissioner Karen Alholm said she is impressed by the efforts that the Veterans Affairs Committee and department staff have put forth to help Marquette County Veterans.
“Many of the current committee members were instrumental in having a millage proposal presented to the voters for the establishment of the Department and committee, and funding of same (up to .1 mills),” Alholm said in an email. “I am probably not in the best position to state why their approach works (that would be the committee and its staff) but would assume it’s because of their commitment to serve the veterans who served our country when they were needed.”
Alholm said she believes the current budget for Soldier and Sailors Relief is adequate.
“Since the amendment was based on a specific request by the committee providing the services,” Alholm said. “Presumable further amendments for 2017 are neither warranted nor necessary.”
According to the MCVAC calculations, $24,316.02 has been awarded to veterans through the relief program as of today.
The largest usage of money goes toward housing assistance. The second largest request is for medical expenses, followed closely by assistance for utility bills, according to the figures.
Marquette County Department of Veterans’ Affairs Committee member Jim Provost said that while SSRF is gaining momentum, that was not always the case.
“My first involvement with the Soldier Sailor Relief Fund was a few years back. At the time the court system was handling the relief and about the only thing they were doing was giving the veterans their $300 allotment for burials,” Provost said. “We started telling veterans that they could get other benefits out of this Soldier Sailor Relief if they were in trouble and had to fix their car so they could get to work or whatever it might be.”
Salo, who works with local veterans every day, regularly sees the impact the committee and the relief program has on eligible veterans.
“The committee has made a significant beneficial impact in the lives of many veterans and their families through our relief program,” Salo said.
Provost said he is gratified that word has gotten out to eligible veterans that assistance is available at what could be a pivotal time in their lives.
“We are getting a lot more looking for help that they didn’t know they had coming for them,” Provost said. “Good thing because now they are getting help.”
Lisa Bowers can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.