By LANCE COHEN
Capital News Service
An additional $2 million in state funds will be awarded in $25,000 grants to counties that fund veteran service programs in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.
The new County Veteran Service Fund will be operated by the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. After all of the base grants are sent out, the remaining funds will be distributed per capita based on the number of veterans in each county.
“I think the bill is a great thing that the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency fought for and we are going to take things above and beyond with this new money,” said Lee Lull, director of Berrien County Veteran Services.
The counties that already have a veterans program must maintain their current funding for services. For the 11 counties that have no program, to qualify for the funds they must hire an accredited service worker for at least 20 hours per week and establish remote access to VA computing systems.
Funds from the grant could be used in Berrien County to improve training for staff members, radio advertising to local businesses and financial management training for veterans, Lull said.
“We want to educate local employers to try to incentivize them into hiring veterans,” Lull said.
Employers that hire veterans can receive a reimbursement of up to 50 percent of a veteran’s salary during the first six months of employment as a part of the Special Employer Incentive program. The new funds will be used to make people aware of that and other veterans services, Lull said.
Michigan is home to over 650,000 veterans, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Wayne and Oakland counties have the most veterans, each with more than 60,000 former service members. More than 15 percent of residents of Keweenaw, Alcona, Ontonagon, Iosco, Montmorency and Iron counties are veterans, which ranks them among the highest percentages in the state.
In 2016, Michigan ranked 44th in per veteran uptake of federal benefits, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. Michigan also ranks 11th in veteran population.
If a county accepts the grant money, it must submit quarterly reports to the state documenting the number of claims that have been made and the nature of those claims, Lull said.
Some counties are undecided if they will apply for the grant, said Rick Wiles, director of Cheboygan County Veteran Services. “This bill was designed to help start up or improve veteran service programs in counties that are hurting.”
The program does not allow counties to reduce their operating budget. At the moment Cheboygan has sufficient funding, Wiles said.