Clallam updates veterans policy with privacy protections

“Releasing any personal information about the veterans and their families could be detrimental and have a catastrophic effect on the current program,” said the veterans association president.

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County has updated its veterans assistance policy with new privacy protections.

County commissioners voted 3-0 this week to adopt amendments to county policy 950, which governs a relief fund that provides emergency assistance for indigent or low-income veterans and their families.

Notably, the amended policy contains a confidentiality clause to protect the identity of veterans seeking help through the Veterans Relief Fund.

“We would like to emphasize how important it is to keep the confidentiality of the veterans’ and their families’ personal information,” said Gary Velie, Clallam County Veterans Association president.

“Releasing any personal information about the veterans and their families could be detrimental and have a catastrophic effect on the current program.”

Six speakers testified in favor of the policy updates in a public hearing Tuesday. One raised concerns about parts of the proposal but did not object to the ordinance as a whole.

“One of the biggest things I am very happy with, and very proud of, is the fact that we have a confidentiality agreement in there,” said Jeff Reyes of the Northwest Veterans Resource Center, who administers the application process for veterans through a contract with the county.

“The idea that their personal information may be released to the public is absolutely terrifying to some of these veterans.”

Reyes interviews veterans in need and submits their applications to the Clallam County Veterans Association for approval.

The Veterans Relief Fund helps qualified veterans pay for things such as food, rent, utilities and medical and social services.

“The basis for any assistance request must be an emergency and provide for reasonable, basic, subsistence needs,” the policy states.

Most of the changes to the veterans assistance policy are administrative touch-ups.

The amended version strikes references to “veterans’ coordinator or assistant” and replaces them with “county employee/contractor.”

The new policy states that no assistance will be considered without proper documentation and outlines an appeals process for those who are denied.

Veterans who access the relief fund must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

The maximum benefit for a veteran is $1,200 per year or $3,600 over a lifetime. The lifetime limit was $3,000 under the old policy.

Reyes said the new policy protects the fund by adding “checks and balances” and certain restrictions.

“This policy is solid,” Reyes said.

Velie said the Clallam County Veterans Association is “supportive of all of the changes that have been made.”

Commissioners tabled action on an earlier version of the policy amendments after an April 19 public hearing.

At that hearing, County Treasurer Selinda Barkhuis raised concerns over budget impacts of the expanded program and potential conflicts between the policy, county code and state law.

Barkhuis noted that the Veterans Relief Fund has “run in the red” for the past several years. The fund has an annual budget of $195,852, Velie has said.

A special property tax covers $82,330 of the expense, and county commissioners approved $81,000 in reserve spending to help support the program in 2016.

The veterans assistance policy was revised by veterans groups and the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office before it was forwarded to the Barkhuis-chaired Clallam County Finance Committee last month.

Barkhuis and county Auditor Shoona Riggs voted Sept. 22 to forward the revised policy to commissioners with no objections. Barkhuis did not attended Tuesday’s hearing.

“I really do appreciate the hard work that went into this,” Commissioner Bill Peach said.

“Although it took much longer than I wish it had taken, I thank you, every single one of you, that worked on this. Well done.”

Commissioner Mark Ozias echoed Peach’s remarks and thanked Reyes for his efforts.

“I think not just our veterans community, but our entire community, owes Jeff a debt of gratitude for the work that he does every single day,” Ozias said.

While Clallam County had no major findings in its state audit for 2015 — its sixth straight clean audit — Audit Manager Carol Ehlinger recommended changes to the old veterans assistance policy.

The review was prompted by a citizen’s concern over veterans assistance payments.

“We confirmed the county provided assistance payments to veterans in excess of amounts allowable under county policy, and the former veterans’ coordinator did not retain adequate documentation supporting income verifications,” Ehlinger wrote in a Sept. 26 exit letter.

“In addition, we found the current veterans’ coordinator is not a county employee as required by county policy.

“We recommended the county provide assistance payments in accordance with county policy, and continue to retain documentation supporting income verifications,” Ehlinger added.

“We further recommended the county change its current practices or update its policy to ensure the fund is operated in accordance with county policy.”

County Administrator Jim Jones said the new policy follows the state auditor’s recommendations.

“It has the blessing of the veterans advisory committee, the prosecutor’s office, the Finance Committee and the state Auditor’s Office,” Jones said.

Ed Bowen of Clallam Bay testified that he was generally supportive of the new policy but raised concerns over the use of the word “final” for the appeals process and a specific relief category for mental health assistance.

Mental health assistance, Bowen said, should be captured in “other emergencies as determined.”

“I can go on and on,” Bowen said. “I don’t know what you want from me, but those are my two objections to the passing of the ordinance today.”

Last November, Barkhuis alleged that unauthorized or excessive payments were made from the Veterans Relief Fund to a former Peninsula Daily News reporter.

Clallam County Human Resources Director Rich Sill concluded last December that no unauthorized or excessive payments were made.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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