JOHNSON COUNTY– The Johnson County Veterans’ Affairs Commission has a new, full-time leader.
For the time being, anyway.
At least one Johnson County supervisor is hesitant to bring another full-time employee aboard, equating a salary increase to a tax increase for Johnson County taxpayers.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors, in their formal meeting of Aug. 23, heard a recommendation from Veterans Affairs commissioner Mike Hensch to hire Gary Boseneiler, Master Sgt., Air Force (Ret.) of North Liberty as the commission’s director. The position was previously held by Leo Baier, who served as Johnson County Veterans Affairs Commission Director for over 18 years.
However, Baier was a not a full-time employee of the county.
The county office was open less than full time until 2009, when the Iowa Legislature enacted a law requiring counties to be open a minimum number of hours, depending on each county’s population. Since then, counties with 60,001 people or greater– including Johnson County– had to staff their Veterans Affairs offices for a minimum of 40 hours each week.
Baier was in the office for 30 hours per week, and his position was supplemented with part-time staff in order to meet the mandates of the County Commission of Veterans Affairs bill. The legislation included a standing appropriation to help counties fund the mandate. Johnson County was eligible for $10,000 in state appropriations annually, but some of Johnson County’s funds reverted back to the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, partially unspent.
After the law was enacted, the Johnson County supervisors, in a December 2009 meeting, stated they would like to ask the state for a waiver of the requirement because the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) puts Johnson County in a unique position of providing access to services and benefits to veterans without the county office being open 40 hours per week.
Ultimately, the board of supervisors asked for clarification from then-Governor Chet Culver’s administration as to whether or not the county was meeting code requirements by offering 40 hours of services to veterans but utilizing part-time employees to do it.
The reply from Culver administration officials stated that Johnson County was in compliance.
But when Baier decided to retire, effective this past May, the Johnson County Veterans Affairs Commission sought a full-time director to replace him.
When Hensch came before the board last Thursday to recommend the county hire Boseneiler full time, supervisor Janelle Rettig said she could not vote to approve his hiring because of the cost of going from a part time to full time staff member.
“The current way we have been doing it is perfectly legal,” Rettig said. “The Culver letter says as long as everyone is certified, we can have multiple staff doing it.”
There were differing opinions among the rest of the board members, though. Supervisor Pat Harney said the opinion of Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness, as well as the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director Jodi Tymeson, was that the law provided for a single, 40-hour per week director.
“We should have made the adjustment long ago, and I suggest we move forward with this,” said Harney.
Rettig said her reason for not wanting to hire Boseneiler full time was financial.
“I have a problem with his because it would be a $30,000 increase in a $150,000 budget,” Rettig argued. “I think we should be delivering services, not paying staff.”
Hensch replied the actual salary increase would depend upon whether Boseneiler elects to receive certain benefits available to him as a full time staff person. Boseneiler told the board he declined medical care benefits from the county, as he already receives them based on his retired military status.
Boseneiler’s wage of $23.91 per hour is the same as the previous director’s. Adding 10 hours per week takes the pay from $37,299 to $49,732, an increase of $12,433 in wages. The Veterans Affairs department had already budgeted $42,062 for wages and benefits for fiscal year 2013; actual costs incurred by hiring Boseneiler full time will be $58,149 with wages and benefits, a difference of about $16,000 per year.
Hensch offered some statistics before the board to help make the case for a full time veterans’ department director.
“We have reached the milestones that 2,000 American service people have been killed in Afghanistan, not including the people in Iraq,” Hench said. “We are in the 12th year of this war; this is a time to provide services for our veterans and not try to find the minimal thing we are obligated to do.”
Rettig said she resented Hensch’s implication.
“I want to provide services, not pay staff. What you’re instituting here would create a waiting list. This is a 20 percent increase in their budget. Over half that budget would be going to the salary of a single individual, and not delivering services to veterans,” Rettig said.
Rettig added that between the VAMC and a local congressional office that handles veterans affairs, “service members in our county have a lot of options. If we spend the $10,000 on salary, we are going to spend $20,000 by raising taxes and not, in the process, serve a single individual.”
Supervisor and board chair Rod Sullivan brought the discussion to a vote, noting the long-standing dispute over staffing hours, but said the decision before the board was whether or not to approve the commission’s recommendation for a director.
“He’s here, so we just have to vote,” Sullivan said.
Supervisor Terrence Neuzil said he wanted it made very clear that even if the board approved Boseneiler’s hiring, it would not necessarily mean the supervisors would subsequently approve a budget amendment to pay the full time salary. The supervisors voted 4-1, with Rettig against, to hire Boseneiler.
Whether or not the board approves a budget amendment remains to be seen. After the meeting, Hensch explained that the Veterans Affairs department falls within the county’s Physical Health and Social Services budget area, and last year, there were unspent dollars in that fund. It’s possible, Hensch said, to reallocate money from one department to another within the same budget services area.
It’s also possible the board will require a formal budget amendment for the additional salary.
Hensch said commission members will speak with the county’s budget coordinator and Sullivan to the next step. Budget amendment requests are due by Oct. 5, and the supervisors must hold a final vote by Nov. 15.
Last week, after hearing from Boseneiler, the supervisors welcomed him to the director’s position, with Sally Stutsman giving him an early assignment.
“I hope part of your outreach will be to look for additional resources, and not just assuming county taxpayers will fund the services,” said Stutsman. “I think there is potential for different revenues to come into this department.”
“Yes ma’am,” Boseneiler replied.