NYC Launches New Department of Veterans’ Services
by: Troops to Trades
April 8, 2016
By Gloria Pazmino
After a winding legislative process, city veterans will for the first time have a dedicated agency to rely on, with the official launch on Friday of the Department of Veterans’ Services.
The city will announce the launch 120 days after Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the law to create the agency, capping more than a year of back and forth between de Blasio, who originally questioned the need for such an agency, the City Council and a community of veterans who demanded better services.
“In creating the Department of Veterans’ Services, we are fulfilling our moral obligation to honor, respect and serve those who have served us and now deserve access to all the services and support they need to return to civilian life,” de Blasio said in a statement.
The new agency will adopt the duties of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs (MOVA), which is transitioning into the new department. For the past two decades, the office has coordinated services for veterans between different city agencies, including the Department of Homeless Services and the Human Resources Administration.
The new department will be led by MOVA Commissioner Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier who was appointed to lead the office by de Blasio in 2014. Prior to serving in the administration, Sutton’s last military assignment was to serve as the founding director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury from 2007 to 2010.
As of last summer, MOVA only had a staff of five people, but the office has increased its staff to 15 and expects to be fully staffed within the new department in the coming months.
The city through the department plans to continue its focus on ending veteran homelessness, ameliorating unemployment and providing mental health services. The veteran homeless population has reduced by over 70 percent since de Blasio took office.
Aides to the mayor said a transitional planning phase for the department began in December of 2015, when de Blasio signed the bill to authorize the agency. The new department is currently selecting new senior executive staff members and expects to be at “full capacity” by next July.
The effort to form the new department did not come easy.
In April of 2014, Councilman Eric Ulrich, a Republican who represents parts of Queens, introduced the bill to create the agency. The bill had overwhelming support in the council and the veteran community, which for months had been asking the administration for increased budget and services.
It took Ulrich more than a year to successfully negotiate with the administration to pass the bill because of de Blasio’s objections.
De Blasio, who at the time faced criticism from the veteran advocate community, said he did not believe creating an agency would necessarily help resolve issues plaguing that community, including homelessness, unemployment and mental illness.
Following months of negotiations, de Blasio and Ulrich hammered out a deal to move the bill’s implementation to the then-upcoming fiscal year.
Ulrich told POLITICO New York his bill not only helped to create the department but it gives the City Council control and oversight over how much money the agency has to provide services to veterans and their families.
“The Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs was always at the mercy of the mayor, whoever the mayor happened to be,” Ulrich said. “Every year we are now going to have budget hearings with the council and we will have the power to make restorations to the veterans agency and increase funding. In the past, if we did not like what the mayor did with MOVA, we couldn’t do anything because it was under the executive branch.”
Although the City Council did not hold preliminary budget hearings on funding for the new department, because funds were not allocated in the mayor’s preliminary financial plan, the council is expecting to hold a hearing on the budget when the mayor’s executive budget comes out in May.
“Today’s historic milestone marks the start of an exciting new chapter towards reaching full DVS operational capacity,” Sutton said in a statement. “Truly, New York City is poised to lead the way in honoring, respecting and supporting the service of those intrepid souls, veterans and their families, who have served on our behalf and continue to serve as our city’s leading natural renewable resource.”
Joe Bello, a member of the Veterans Advisory Board — which serves as a liaison between local veterans and the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs — said he hopes the new department will bring increased services for veterans rather, than more bureaucracy.
“Today it’s just the name, so we are still waiting to see what the budget will look like,” Bello said. “We are slowly moving in the right direction, we just want to make sure that there is no bureaucratic stumbling blocks as it moves forward.”
Bello — who also founded and leads MetroVets, an informational site for veterans in the New York City area — said the community’s priorities continue to center around homelessness, jobs and housing.
“What the community is looking to see is that the administration funds the office properly, and what we are interested in seeing is what kind of services will be available to help veterans and their families. Right now, that main focus is that the commissioner is hiring the right people and that the administration funds the office properly as we move forward,” Bello said.
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