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Budget recommendation seeks staffer to address long-awaited veterans affairs needs

Friday, July 8, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

City staff members are pushing for City Council to fund a new position in the Office of Civil Rights that would allow the office to handle many needs and responsibilities outlined in years of idled plans for a resource center for veterans and military affairs within city government.

A memo released last week from leaders of the civil rights office and Human Resources and Civil Service suggests Council include $127,000 in the next city budget to fund a Program Manager II position within the OCR, which began working closely last year with veterans services offices in the five-county region.

The memo calls for the new position to “collaborate with internal and external partners (and) local, state and federal agencies to inform policy, develop programming and facilitate stakeholder engagement and Council policy direction regarding the veteran community,” which covers some of the main duties included in several presentations in recent years regarding how to better serve veterans in Central Texas.

The memo came in response to a December resolution from Council directing the city manager to identify the costs, funding sources and steps needed to create a veteran resource center.  The memo catalogs with more than two dozen bullet points the many attempts, beginning in 2015, from groups such as the Commission on Veterans Affairs and the Human Resources Department to create an office specifically focused on the needs of local veterans.

The most significant developments in those efforts began in 2017 when the Commission on Veterans Affairs recommended the city allocate $1.3 million in its 2018 budget to create the resource center and a plaza dedicated to veterans, and provide the needed staffing for the center.

A December 2017 memo from human resources identified 12 organizations involved in veterans affairs that could help manage a center and looked at the costs involved in opening the center in Southeast Austin ($834,185 over five years) or downtown ($1.78 million over five years), with another $200,000 needed for furnishings and basic telecommunications capabilities.

The next budget recommendation from the Commission on Veterans Affairs asked Council to provide $850,000 per year for five years to create and staff the center. That recommendation was not included in the following year’s budget, and in August 2019, human resources and the Combined Arms organization made a presentation at a Council work session that showed the need and focus areas for a possible center dedicated to veterans issues.

Among the findings: Assistance with claims for benefits was the most needed service, followed by mental health, employment, social interactions and financial assistance as the most urgent help areas. Others included legal assistance, living expenses, homelessness prevention, substance abuse, child care, transportation and food availability. The groups also looked at the pros and cons of having the center run by the city, a nonprofit group or through a public-private partnership, as well as what services were already available through Travis County, VA clinics, TexVet, the Texas Veterans Commission and the Austin Community College VSO.

In early 2020 before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Commission on Veterans Affairs passed a recommendation calling for the creation of a Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, though it didn’t include any budget recommendation.

The memo outlines the many activities related to veterans issues that the Human Resources Department carried out from 2017 to 2022, including handling emergencies involving veterans, coordinating donations for furniture and other materials, and interacting with several organizations within the region that are involved in addressing veterans issues.

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