VSC vs. County Commission take two

Veterans Services Commission returns to court after denied request

LISBON — The Columbiana County Veterans Services Commission is taking county commissioners back to court.

VSC Chief Administrator Kevan Wain was authorized Tuesday by his board to take whatever action is needed to file an appeal in county Common Pleas Court challenging the commissioners’ decision to appropriate the VSC $658,000 in 2018 instead of the $708,000 it requested,

“I hate to go through it again,” but commissioners left the VSC no choice by failing to appropriate them what the VSC requested, Wain said.

The decision comes less than a week after commissioners adopted a 2018 county budget that keeps appropriations roughly at 2017 levels. This means the VSC will receive $658,000, which is the same as last year and $50,000 less than it requested.

The VSC requested $695,000 for 2017 and when commissioners did not provide the entire amount, the VSC responded by filing an appeal, despite a promise by Commissioner Mike Halleck to get them the funding later in the year as additional revenue came available. This is the approach commissioners take with every office, all of whom end up getting what they need to make it through the year.

The lawsuit was resolved in late July when commissioners agreed to give the VSC the additional $37,000 it demanded.

State law requires VSCs to receive funding equal to what a half-mill property tax would generate, which is currently $873,000 per year. Rather than enact a property tax, as other counties have done, commissioners choose to use county general fund revenue to subsidize the VSC instead.

“Frankly, if we get the money we want I don’t care where it comes from,” Wain said.

Board member Dave Oesch asked if the VSC could get by on the $658,000, and Wain said they likely could because no pay raises are planned for 2018. The only possible major expense is the possible replacement of the van used for transporting veterans to area VA clinics, but that cost was covered with $24,000 in 2017 funds the VSC board transferred into a line item for that purpose.

The VSC historically has returned $35,000 to $40,000 in unspent funds back to commissioners, but Wain said whether they need the additional $50,000 is not the issue. “It’s a matter of principle,” he said, because the VSC is entitled by law to the money.

Board member Tom Scahill was puzzled why commissioners continue to take this stance given county finances. “They’re sitting on money down there, quite a bit,” he said.

Approximately $5.2 million in general fund revenue is currently held in reserve, and commissioners received another $2 million from the state last month to make up for the loss of an estimated $2 million a year in county sales tax revenue due to changes at the federal level. Halleck, who drafted the county budget, has said the money being held in reserve is needed to cover future sales tax losses.

Wain will confer with an attorney and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office on how to proceed in filing an appeal, which has to be done by Dec. 29. Last year, commissioners refused to grant the VSC permission to retain its own attorney, and should that occur again, Wain said they may be allowed to petition the court directly.

Wain expects commissioners will criticize them again for filing an appeal, but he said commissioners are mandated by law to give them what they want, up to the $873,000. “A good budgetician would make sure those obligations are taken care of,” he said.

In other action at Tuesday’s VSC board meeting, Wain reported county Commissioner Tim Weigle met with him to discuss their request to purchase a new phone system for the VSC for $8,100. Weigle suggested the VSC instead join the county’s new phone system that was rolled out earlier in the year, but Wain believes the system they want is superior.

“They have not convinced me it will do what we need it to do,” he said of the county’s phone system.

It would cost the VSC $5,000 a year to join the county’s system, which includes internet, cable TV, IT support, firewall, backup and software licensing, and Wain said they spend $4,800 for pretty much the same thing. Weigle has said commissioners would provide the phones and related equipment, saving the VSC the $8,100.

Wain was told to research the matter further and return in January with a recommendation.