Testimony: Growing & Improving NYC Veterans' Services

On January 21, 2020, Deputy Director James Fitzgerald testified before the annual NYC Council hearing on oversight of the Department of Veterans' Services--the most important hearing of the year for the Committee on Veterans. With the recent release of Mayor de Blasio's Preliminary Budget, funding for DVS is proposed to increase. But the oversight hearing itself was sparsely attended by Veterans Committee members, who left their seats mostly vacant during the majority of the hearing, the exception being veteran spouse Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, who remained engaged with substantive questions. Committee Chair Chaim Deutsch, who announced his candidacy for another elected office that day, was not present for the full hearing. 

Below is the testimony delivered by Deputy Director Fitzgerald:

Good afternoon and thank you to Chair Deutsch and Committee Members for this opportunity to testify today. My name is James Fitzgerald and I am the Deputy Director of the NYC Veterans Alliance, a member-driven, grassroots policy advocacy and community-building organization that advances veterans and families as civic leaders. We work with more than 150 community organizations across the NYC Metro area to promote events for veterans and families posted online at OurVeterans.NYC, our year-round online resource hub visited by more than 4,000 users each month. We also remain the only organization dedicated to local-level advocacy for veterans and families here in NYC. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to present testimony before you today.

I would like to begin by extending congratulations to Commissioner James Hendon on his recent appointment as head of the Department of Veterans’ Services (DVS). We appreciate and thank him for his continuing service to New York City and the United States of America.

The NYC Veterans Alliance was a key advocate for the creation of the Department of Veterans’ Services to support our city’s approximate population of 210,000 veterans (about ¼ of our state’s veterans) plus an estimated 250,000 caregivers and family members connected with those veterans. Our membership strongly supports our continuous efforts to set high expectations for the role of DVS in NYC and beyond, and there is much to be optimistic about as we look toward the future of DVS. We applaud the great work that has been accomplished by DVS, but there is still much work left to be done. Therefore, we present some items to highlight concerning the future of DVS:

  1. We applaud the Mayor’s Preliminary Budget proposal of $6.68 million for DVS in Fiscal Year 2021. We believe this steady increase in funding will allow DVS to continue growing and improving the quality of its outreach and services. With increased resources, the next fiscal year should show high marks in performance as the agency truly hits its stride.
  2. We strongly urge the inclusion of an Agency Chief Contracting Officer (ACCO) in DVS’s budget and staffing proposal. DVS needs the ability to manage and monitor their significant contract with Northwell for VetConnectNYC, as currently overseen by DCAS, an agency that does not have fluency or competency with veterans’ services. The ACCO’s contracting and procurement expertise can enhance the agency’s ability to provide crucial oversight of discretionary funds from the Council to organizations that provide services to veterans and their families, as well as managing its own Request for Proposal (RFP) processes. Oversight of city funds going to veterans’ services is a basic agency responsibility, and would at last bring DVS into alignment with its state and federal counterparts. We urge the Council to ensure DVS has no further delays on establishing and managing contracts and procurement going forward, as this is a necessary function for DVS to truly operate as an independent agency.
  3. We strongly urge continued investment in DVS’s robust and capable full-time Human Resources staffing so that it provides best-in-class, in-house support for the agency’s growing cadre of employees, the vast majority of whom are themselves veterans and family members. Retention and development of DVS’s current staff can ensure the agency attracts and keeps its best talent and builds essential knowledge and experience over the long term to best serve our community. City government is the largest employer of veterans, military reservists, and their family members in NYC—and it needs to be the best employer. DVS should be fully empowered to be a shining example of “what right looks like” in supporting veterans, military reservists, and family members as employees in city government, and in the city as a whole.
  4. We strongly urge that DVS establish in-house capability to provide consultation on and direct filing of VA claims. In an era where veteran service organizations no longer have capacity and funding to meet the demand of this essential service to the veterans community, it is incumbent on local government to step up with VA-accredited staff who do have this capability. DVS’s Community Outreach staff are not currently able to offer direct assistance with VA claims, and so this service is referred out. With the increased funding projected for the next fiscal year, we strongly urge the Council to support DVS in being able to provide this essential service to our community.
  5. DVS’s core services and accomplishments should be accurately reflected in the annual Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), and it should also be transparent about areas where more support for improvement is needed. For example, last fall’s MMR reported that DVS provided homeless prevention assistance to 438 veterans and permanent housing to 158 veterans—both of those numbers representing fewer veterans served from the previous year. Not included in the report were the more than 600 veterans who remained homeless in the city’s shelter system, or an explanation of where further support was needed to get those veterans services and permanent housing. The MMR also shows the number of community members “engaged” and “given assistance,” but the definitions of these metrics should be more clear and representative of the true work being done and the impacts on the lives of veterans and families in NYC. We look forward to improved reporting of DVS’s impacts in future years, and improved transparency about the further support DVS needs.

Thank you for the opportunity to offer this testimony today. Pending your questions, this concludes my testimony.

Video of the full hearing can be viewed HERE.