On Monday, March 6, 2017, the NYC Veterans Alliance presented testimony at the Preliminary Budget Hearing held by the NYC Council Committee on Veterans. Below is the prepared testimony of Kristen Rouse on behalf of the Alliance:
My name is Kristen Rouse. I served for more than 20 years of combined service in the United States Army, Army Reserve, and the New York National Guard, which included three tours of duty in Afghanistan, where I provided supply and maintenance support to warfighters, including planning and executing convoys missions and partnering with Afghan troops. I am here today to testify on behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance, a member-supported, grassroots policy advocacy and empowerment organization serving veterans, servicemembers, and their families across the New York City metropolitan area.
We applaud the work of the NYC Department of Veterans’ Services since its inception, and we have heard from our membership that they are impressed by the new staff who have been brought on board and the caliber of work they do. We look forward to the growth and expansion of DVS’s role in ensuring that veterans and their families are able to connect with the benefits and services they so richly deserve. But we must be clear that this is only the beginning. As one of our members recently said at a rally here on the steps of City Hall: “It is not time to decrease funding while we are still at war.” New Yorkers are serving right now, right this very minute on combat missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. They aren’t even back home yet, and there is much, much work still to be done to ensure they can take full advantage of the services and benefits they are owed right here in New York City.
While my organization offers no direct social services to veterans, we regularly refer veterans and family members to DVS for help, and we also hear back from individuals who tell us that DVS hasn’t yet been able to help them. Just in the last couple of weeks we’ve heard from a veteran who told us he’s been in the Borden Avenue homeless shelter for more than a year because he can’t find a place to use his LINC voucher. We heard just last week from the widow of a veteran who is struggling to pay rent and prevent eviction who told us that DVS couldn’t help her because first, she’s not yet homeless, and second, because her veteran spouse is deceased. DVS needs to further expand its resources and connectivity with other city agencies and community organizations to provide more comprehensive help for veterans and their families—including widows and spouses. This is not a time to say “enough” and say further growth costs too much. DVS was created because of the enormity of the need and urgency of helping veterans and their families in NYC—which together represent 1 in 17 New Yorkers. Funding must go up, not be reduced.
For these reasons, we make the following recommendations for the Fiscal Year 2018 Budget:
1. DVS’s Budget Must Increase, Not Decrease. Last year’s budget total was $3.95 million. We understand that this included one-time startup costs as well as private grant funding. But it is not acceptable for our city government to start finding cost savings in the DVS budget.
2. DVS’s Staffing Level Must Be Filled and Not Decreased. Last year’s staffing level for DVS was 35. This staffing level must remain in place, and all positions must be filled.
3. DVS must provide oversight of the more than a million dollars that go annually to community based organizations. One of the top recommendations we made in our June 2015 report on NYC veterans policy was for then-MOVA, now DVS, to provide appropriate vetting and oversight for discretionary funds from NYC Council going to community organizations for veterans services and welfare, and we again make this recommendation. The disparate agencies that have been tasked with oversight of these funds, including DYCD, SBS, and DOHMH simply do not have the expertise or holistic view of the NYC veterans community that DVS does. It is time for DVS to dedicate time and staffing to this critical oversight task to ensure that the city’s funds are used appropriately to serve our city’s veterans and families.
4. We further urge NYC Council Members to allocate funding for the Alternative Tax Exemption for veteran homeowners. School districts across Long Island and the entire state have been approving this fundamental and long-overdue tax exemption to make housing more affordable for veterans, and it is absolutely essential that NYC do so as well. Home ownership is a basic promise in the GI Bill of Rights for our nation’s veterans—which has been eroded and made nearly impossible for veterans here in NYC. This tax exemption is just one step forward that NYC Council can take toward making housing more attainable and affordable for the veterans who served our nation and our city.
On behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance, I thank you for the opportunity to testify today. Pending your questions, this concludes my testimony.