ELYRIA TWP. — Veterans called for the ouster of the Lorain County Veterans Service Commission board during a meeting Tuesday that came on the heels of last week’s firing of Don Bates, the agency’s executive director.
Bates’ termination, since rescinded, wasn’t the only topic that angered the roughly 50 veterans who crowded into the meeting at the commission’s offices Tuesday afternoon. They also were upset that the board hasn’t pushed harder to force the county commissioners to hand over more money to fund the agency and to support the financially beleaguered St. Joseph Community Center.
“You ain’t doing nothing for us, that’s why we’re pounding on you,” veteran Ishmael Williams told board members during the meeting. “You represent us and do stuff for us, then we’ll be happy. Then we won’t come in here and gripe. We’ll say, ‘Hey, you’re doing a good job. Thank you for looking out for veterans.’ But you’re not, you’re looking out for yourself … Get out of the way, man.”
Bob Childers, the commission’s chairman, and member Robert Mackin said after the meeting those complaining about their performance are entitled to their opinions, even if the board doesn’t share them.
“I think we’re doing an excellent job,” Childers said.
But many veterans at the meeting disagreed, saying they had lost confidence in the board and at one point most of the veterans in the room raised their hands when asked if they would support a no-confidence vote in the board. Two veterans raised their hands when asked if anyone still had confidence in the board.
Childers repeatedly refused to discuss the reasons behind Bates’ firing.
The board fired Bates last week but was forced to rescind the termination after a two-hour executive session earlier Tuesday. Bates’ status as a veteran service officer, a job he performed in addition to his role as director, prevents him from being fired without cause.
Once Bates was officially back on the payroll, the board voted to put him on paid administrative leave and appointed Childers to serve as his temporary replacement.
Childers said last week that the board had become “dissatisfied” with Bates’ management of the agency. Bates has said Childers accused him of theft in office, altering documents and malfeasance during an angry confrontation last week when the board came in to let him know he was being fired. Childers has declined to discuss those allegations in detail.
Bates has previously denied any wrongdoing and his attorney, Matt Dooley, echoed that stance Tuesday after the meeting, which he didn’t attend.
“We’re confident that when all is said and done, it’ll be clear that Don did nothing wrong, and hopefully he’ll be able to get back to what he’s been doing for years and loves doing, which is helping veterans in this county,” Dooley said.
Although Bates wasn’t at the meeting either, the veterans there pushed for a cause he’s long fought for — expanding the amount of money the county commissioners give to Veterans Services.
This year, the agency has a budget of about $1.2 million, but Bates and other veterans argue the commissioners are required to give Veterans Services up to around $3.4 million annually.
According to state law, Veterans Services is funded through the county’s inside millage, essentially an unvoted property tax.
The money from that inside millage that doesn’t go to Veterans Services remains in the county general fund.
The commissioners have disagreed and said that even if the veterans’ argument for more money is accurate, giving more money to Veterans Services will mean additional cuts elsewhere in county government, which has already seen budget reductions and layoffs in recent years.
Lana Deeb of the Women’s Auxiliary for the Disabled American Veterans chapter in Lorain said the veterans are entitled to the additional money.
“I don’t care who else sacrifices, (the veterans) made the ultimate sacrifice,” she said during the meeting.
Both Leon Mason, grant coordinator for U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, A-Avon, and Lorain attorney Lisa Swenski, who is unopposed in the November election after defeating county Domestic Relations Judge David Berta in the March Democratic primary, said that in their view the law is clear and the veterans can force the county to give them additional money as long as it’s for legal purposes.
Although the county commissioners can review the Veterans Services’ budget, they can’t make any changes unless the expenditures are illegal.
Swenski said in her view if the veterans were to sue the county, the veterans would win.
Childers said after the meeting that Veterans Services’ budget has increased in recent years and that ultimately he’d like the agency to get about half of the inside millage to which veterans argue they’re entitled.
That would put Veterans Services in line with other counties throughout the state, he said.
Many veterans, including Don Attie, who is a board member for the Valor Home Lorain County Committee, have pushed county commissioners to relocate the Veterans Services offices to St. Joseph Community Center. Attie complained that the latest budget presented by the board didn’t include money for doing so.
The board tried to do so last year, but the county commissioners rejected that because they already provide space for Veterans Services at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services building in Elyria Township.
Attie said even if the county had said no, the Veterans Services board still had an obligation to push for the money to move.
Childers, however, argued that putting money into St. Joe’s might not be the best plan while the future of the facility is still in question.
The veterans are backing efforts by county and Lorain city officials to convince the state to make changes to a $1.3 million loan that would allow the county and city to pump additional operating money into St. Joe’s, which also houses a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic.
South Shore Community Development Corp., which owns the facility, has said that without additional operating money, the former hospital building will be forced to close soon.
The veterans envision St. Joe’s as a one-stop location for veterans that would house the VA clinic, Veterans Services and the Valor Home, which will provide transitional housing for veterans in need.
Mason said Veterans Services could force the commissioners to give them money and then pass those funds on to the VA to spend on St. Joe’s, something he contends would be entirely legal.
Attie, who called for the resignation of the board for what he described as dereliction of duty, said after the meeting that he’s not convinced that the Veterans Services board has any intention of changing how it does business.
“They told us what we wanted to hear to pacify us,” he said.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.