South Hadley-Easthampton veterans district to dissolve; communities to offer services on their own

Staff Writer
Published: 11/22/2022 7:42:08 PM
Modified: 11/22/2022 7:41:57 PM

SOUTH HADLEY/EASTHAMPTON — In an effort to improve services to the growing population of veterans in their communities, South Hadley and Easthampton have agreed to no longer share a veterans agent and instead will cover the work on their own.

The Select Board made the move official last week by unanimously approving to dissolve the South Hadley-Easthampton Veterans Service District.

“Easthampton and South Hadley are two drastically different communities and you can’t develop one plan that works for both. The municipal government side of things are completely different. Their processes are completely different,” said Michael Slater, veterans agent for the district. “It’s a lot for one person to manage, and it’s really not feasible.”

At the end of October, the board that oversees the veterans service district voted to dissolve the agreement between the two municipalities. Under the joint agreement, either community can unilaterally cancel the agreement by notifying the other community prior to the start of the subsequent fiscal year.

“The needs of South Hadley and Easthampton’s veterans have grown in different directions over the last few years — the number of veterans seeking services and the location of additional support services,” Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said in a statement. “The current veterans service officer recommended dissolving the district so Easthampton could best tailor services to our veterans.”

In South Hadley’s case, terminating the district means the ability to provide more outreach and support to the town’s veterans, Town Administrator Lisa Wong said.

“Sixteen hours is just not enough given our population here and given the need, which is becoming a lot more complex,” she said.

The veterans service district between South Hadley and Easthampton has been in existence for the past five years. Prior to that, the district also included Granby, until the municipality departed the district in 2017 and created its own position dedicated to serving veterans.

Every town or district in the state has a veterans service officer, whose duties include assisting veterans and their dependents in learning about, applying for, and receiving Chapter 115 benefits, a state program that administers funding from the Department of Veterans’ Services to veterans with low income. A veterans agent also conducts outreach, offers referrals and helps veterans access assistance programs related to employment, and coordinating observance-related events like Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

A veterans agent is appointed for a term of up to three years.

In Slater’s current capacity, he provides 16 hours of service to Easthampton, which has an approximate veteran population of 1,300, and 16 hours of service to South Hadley, which has roughly 1,400 veterans. He is paid $32,500 from each community through the district.

Comparably, Slater said Longmeadow has a designated veterans service officer, who makes approximately $51,700 for 35 hours of work, and has 748 veterans. Belchertown’s veterans agent has a salary of approximately $85,700 for 40 hours, and has a veteran population of 728.

One challenge Slater has identified in his role is being able to access the federal Department of Veterans Affairs system.

“What we’re running into is that with the limited amount of time and the large footprint of what this district currently has, we can’t branch into those other areas,” he said. “A trained and accredited VSO (veterans service officer) with VA access is important to the amount of VA money coming into the community each month.”

According to reports provided by Slater, the amount paid by the VA monthly to South Hadley veterans and the amount of veterans receiving those benefits have steadily increased since he’s taken the helm of the district. In 2019, the VA paid 308 South Hadley veterans a collective total of $434,426.12, which increased to 322 veterans in 2022, bringing the collective total to $499,897.11.

“Realistically, that number could be 100 to 150 times higher if we had time to dedicate to prioritizing more VA work, which I just do not have time for,” he said.

What’s next?

In addition to dissolving the district, the South Hadley Select Board voted Nov. 15 to create a 32- to 40-hour position that will provide assistance only to South Hadley veterans, starting in fiscal 2024, which begins on July 1, 2023. Wong said that she will add the position to South Hadley’s budget, which will be voted on at the annual Town Meeting scheduled for May 10. The new position will be posted pending approval.

Easthampton will advertise a part-time veterans agent position at some point next year. The role will receive additional support services from the city’s expanded Department of Public Health, according to LaChapelle.

With a designated South Hadley veterans agent in place, Wong said the town intends on seeking a claims accreditation through the VA.

“This means more money to veterans, more support for veterans also probably means more money back to the town,” she said. “So instead of the town using our own funds to support veterans, we can actually access state, federal and other resources to do so.”

Moving forward, Wong said she’d like to invest in more training for a future veteran service officer, such as the Department of Transitional Assistance and SNAP benefit applications, and Social Security applications.

She also wants to expand partnerships with local and national VFW and American Legion organizations to assist in programs and services beneficial to youth, establish a more involved relationship with state representatives to help leverage more state funding, and interact more with outside organizations to bring in different services available in the area.

In the meantime, Slater and the district will remain in place until June 30.

“I see this as a very positive step for the community and our vets,” Wong said. “This is what they deserve for serving our country.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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