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Money depleted, veterans affairs looks to volunteers

After the failure of a November ballot measure that would have implemented a special levy to financially bolster the county's veterans' affairs program, officials continue to investigate ways to keep the program afloat.

Through that work, a solution is coming into focus: If the county's veterans' affairs program doesn't have the money to pay for some aspects of its services, such as outreach, why not look to volunteers?

That appears to be the next step.

County Commissioner Henry Heimuller and the Community Action Team's Seniors and Veterans Program Manager Ken Johnson want to put together a volunteer base to take pressure off of the understaffed office.

That one-man office, staffed by coordinator Joe Pyle, is responsible for 1,100 cases. It can take Pyle up to six weeks to meet with a veteran seeking assistance. Johnson said the need is way above average.

Heimuller said a committee has been formed to find volunteers whose job would be to extend the program's services to areas of the county that are currently underserved. But it will take time to find a collection of suitable volunteers and to train them.

'Like any other program, it will take us a little time to get everyone together,' Heimuller said.

Overall, the plan calls for putting together a service that 'looks, smells and acts like a Veterans' services program,' Heimuller added.

Johnson said the majority of the volunteers would likely themselves be veterans. He's noticed that veterans have an easier time talking to other veterans.

'If you're not sensitive to [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] issues, then you start bumping up against people,' he said.

He hopes to have volunteers in place by the summer, when funding will again be a pressing topic.

Funding has been tight for the program since the failure of a November ballot measure, which would have raised property taxes by 3.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed home value.

The city of St. Helens late last year gave the program $15,000 in the form of state revenue-sharing funds. That money is expected to keep the program going through the summer. Johnson said he's in the process of seeking additional grant funding.

Heimuller said shifting county money to the program is not an option due to the budget crunch the county already faces.

'They haven't come to the county looking for dollars, and frankly we wouldn't have any to share,' he said. 'This will take some elbow grease.'