2016 Budget Increase for Veterans: Not Victory, But An Important Step Forward

Following pressure from the NYC Veterans Alliance, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and veterans and advocates across NYC, our city government has responded by including more funding for veterans and veterans services in the 2016 budget. This is truly an important step forward, and we appreciate the many City Council members who pushed for the funding increase, and we appreciate that Mayor de Blasio has, at long last, finally supported these additions to the budget. But we must be clear: NYC still has a long way yet to go before we can declare victory.


Mission Accomplished? Those of us who've served in recent conflicts are maybe more cautious than others to unfurl the "Mission Accomplished" banner when we see progress.The NYC Veterans Alliance is committed to remaining impartial (we have not requested funding or support from NYC government) and committed to a broader vision of how NYC government can catch up to what other cities like Boston, San Diego, and even Yonkers are doing for their veterans--as well as to take a more effective, streamlined approach to managing programs and funding that impacts NYC's veterans and their families. NYC's 2016 budget represents a noteworthy funding increase for veterans services, and it both restores and increases the services that were slashed from last year's budget. This is a solid push forward. But there is much still to do.

We have to be careful about when we declare "Mission Accomplished" (Photo by U.S. Navy in May 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq)
Sometimes it's just too early to declare "Mission Accomplished" (Photo by U.S. Navy in May 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq)

Many Benefit, But More Is Needed. Many veterans organizations across NYC will receive new city funding for their programs serving veterans in NYC, and several NYC veterans advocates will soon be employed by MOVA to provide outreach to veterans in need of benefits counseling and access to services--all of which is welcome news, and we are pleased to see these individuals and organizations praising NYC government for this important progress. But, even as certain individuals and organizations get what they've asked for, we must remain united as a community in calling on NYC government to take a comprehensive approach to funding and managing veterans affairs for the largest--and greatest--city in the country.

The Specifics. No statement on the 2016 budget (with detailed documents released just this week) serves our community unless it also includes the facts on the funding that has been allocated for veterans affairs. Below is a breakdown of what is included for veterans in the 2016 budget, as itemized in the budget documents themselves:

Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs. MOVA will receive a total of $685,233 for a Commissioner and five full-time staff members, which is up from the $592,274 spent last year for the same number of staff. Another $25,000 will go toward expenditures on supplies, materials, data processing supplies, books, office services, and travel reimbursements, plus others marked as “fixed miscellaneous charges” listed as “payments to military and other.” This is up from $23,000 spent on these costs last year. NYC government is receiving a slightly increased amount from NY State this year to operate a "county" veterans affairs office, which is $321,411. All told, this increases the amount of city tax-levy (CTL) funds by about 29% from last year for the same number of staff to have the same role in coordinating disparate programs and training Veterans Liaisons across 120+ city agencies. Staff expenditures for MOVA can be found on pages 7, 8, and 11 of this document: http://www.nyc.gov/html/omb/downloads/pdf/ss6_15.pdf. Supply and other expenditures can be found on pages 21 and 22.

Veterans Outreach Program. Three veterans benefits counselors had originally been funded by the Robin Hood Foundation on the grounds that future funding would come from city government, but continuation of these counselors was slashed from last year's budget. The 2016 budget restores this program, and increases it to six veterans benefits counselors at an average salary of $55,000 per year, and stipulates that they will be available to veterans in all five boroughs. The total cost of the six veterans benefits counselors is $335,000. This expenditure can be found on page 1074 of this document: http://www.nyc.gov/html/omb/downloads/pdf/ss6_15.pdf

Discretionary Funds for Veterans Services. The City Council has more than doubled the amount of discretionary funds it has allocated for Veterans Services. This year $940,000 will be granted to organizations serving NYC veterans, up from $400,000 last year. The recipients include: Project Renewal culinary arts training program for veterans at risk for homelessness ($150,000, overseen by DHS); Helmets to Hardhats program for transitioning veterans and military reservists into construction careers ($150,000, overseen by SBS); NY Legal Aid Group and Legal Services NYC programs providing veterans with vital legal assistance ($350,000, overseen by HRA); NYU Langone's Military Families Clinic and the Veterans Mental Health Coalition programs related to mental health services for veterans and families ($190,000, overseen by DOHMH); and as-yet designated programs for the veterans community ($100,000, overseen by DYCD). These grants can be viewed beginning on page 128 of this document: http://council.nyc.gov/html/budget/2016/skedcf.pdf 

Other Discretionary Funds for Veterans. By our initial count, another $157,500 in City Council discretionary funds has been granted for programs and services that include or relate to veterans and family members. Programs and services include direct counseling and assistance, or efforts such as free Thanksgiving turkeys for homeless or homebound veterans, parades, memorials, a documentary film on Dominican veterans, and office space for veterans organizations. Recipients include: Posts/chapters of Amvets, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America; Korean War Veterans Association; United Staten Island Veterans Organization; Military Order of the Purple Heart; Black Veterans for Social Justice; Allied Veterans Memorial Committee of Ridgewood and Glendale; Polish and Slavic Center; Bailey's Cafe; Little Neck Douglaston Parade; 161st Street Merchants; NIA Community Services Network; Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow; Rego Park Jewish Center; Research Foundation of CUNY; Samaritans of New York; United Forties Civic Association; Urban Neighborhood Services. Specific amounts and descriptions can be found in Appendix A and Appendix B of this document: http://council.nyc.gov/html/budget/2016/skedcf.pdf

$1.5 Million Toward Veteran Homelessness Efforts. On June 22, 2015, Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Mark-Viverito announced that $1.5 million in additional funding will be allocated for new staffing and resources for ending veteran homelessness. It remains to be seen whether this amount will be allocated from federal or city tax-levy (CTL) funds. The city is receiving $3.4 million again this year from the Obama administration for veteran homelessness efforts, and it remains unclear how this full amount has been spent on these efforts.

The funding listed above represents an important step forward by the City Council and Mayor de Blasio's administration. But it does not fulfill the urgent need for an independent and fully-resourced Department of Veterans Affairs to manage veterans affairs programs and services that affect one in sixteen NYC residents. See the report we released last week, CHANGE IS ESSENTIAL, for our detailed recommendations for improving policies and outcomes for NYC veterans, and stay tuned for more information and announcements in the upcoming days and weeks.

Forward progress is important. But let's not lose our momentum in pushing for NYC government to take a comprehensive, streamlined, and fully-resourced approach to ensuring all veterans and family members in NYC can access the benefits and services they have rightfully earned.