TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. – Tompkins County is moving forward with plans to establish a Veterans Services Agency, with the legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee expressing unanimous support Monday. The standalone agency will be headed by a director of veterans services tasked with connecting local veterans to services available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Plans to establish the agency and hire a director are expected to move quickly through the full Tompkins legislature, which already set aside $100,000 in the 2019 county budget for the purpose.

According to a presentation by the county’s deputy administrator, Lisa Holmes, there are about 4,100 veterans in Tompkins County and they brought about $23 million in VA funds to the county in 2017.Holmes said a local veterans services director will help vets access the wide range of benefits and services they are eligible for.

Available benefits include disability compensation, health care, educational and vocational rehabilitation and home loan guarantees, for example.

Jim Murphy, founder of Ithaca Veterans for Peace and a Vietnam War veteran, said during public comment that the new director could help find veterans who have fallen through the cracks.

“What we have here in Ithaca is a very informal network of people who look out for veterans,” Murphy said. He commended the work of “miracle workers” who support veterans at organizations like Loaves and Fishes, but said a lot of vets still aren’t connected to vital support resources.

The new director, he said, should be someone who will actively forge connections with vets of all ages and in all walks of life. “It can’t be someone who’s gonna sit in an office. Maybe half the day you’re in the office, but you have to go out and find these guys,” Murphy said.

Margaret O’Neil, of the Finger Lakes Veterans Peace Coalition, added that the new director should be a point of contact for veterans who are not always visible.

She said when it comes to needing guidance to access military benefits, “It is not just vets that you can see…  it’s all vets.” She said she didn’t know she was eligible for tuition assistance for her son’s education until it was too late.

As the committee voted unanimously to advance the plan, legislator Leslyn McBean-Clairborne said she was grateful to county staff, especially administrator Jason Molino, for making the Veterans Services Agency a reality.

“You know how much this warms my heart,” McBean-Clairborne said. “I’ve been on this legislature for a number of years and it’s been a priority for me, so I’m grateful.”

Two resolutions to change the county charter to create the agency in compliance with executive law will reach the full legislature for a public hearing on Feb. 19. The county will then move forward to recruit and hire a director, who will directly report to the county administrator. The position will initially be housed within the Office for the Aging at the Human Services Annex while permanent office space is pursued.

Featured image: The 2018 Veterans Day Parade in Ithaca. (Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.