Sullivan County veterans office proposal loses prime co-sponsor

J. H. Osborne • Jun 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — A proposal that would end county funding of a veteran’s assistance office in Kingsport lost its prime co-sponsor Thursday, the same night the Sullivan County Commission’s Budget Committee deferred action on the issue.

County Commissioner Joe Herron said he’d gotten telephone calls about the proposal and had been approached while shopping in Wal-Mart by constituents opposed to the move.

Herron said he told those folks he’d take his name off as prime sponsor, and he did.

He was the second commissioner in as many days to remove his name from the measure, sponsored by Commissioner Sam Jones and first publicly discussed on Monday.

Commissioner Bill Kilgore took his name off the proposal on Wednesday, saying he wanted more information.

The proposal is to create a new county office, with the county mayor appointing a county veteran’s service officer — and to in turn cut off county funding to the programs in Kingsport and Bristol.

Herron said maybe the answer is to put a position in Blountville, but also leave the funding for the program in Kingsport.

That was a popular suggestion among commissioners — several others mentioned the same thing.

Herron did go one step further, pointing out the county’s budget currently includes more than $64,000 for a position that is vacant: the county’s tourism director’s office.

On Thursday, Jones produced copies of a piece of legislation approved at the state level in 2004. That bill encouraged all of Tennessee’s counties to establish the position of a veteran’s service officer — along with some guidelines for the appointment.

However, Jones said he is not seeking any more money to fund the potential Blountville-based veteran’s service officer’s slot — just the $11,900 that currently goes to programs in Kingsport ($8,000) and Bristol ($3,900).

The 2004 bill approved by state legislators also calls for the county veteran’s service officer to be appointed by the county commission. Jones’ proposal changes that, giving County Mayor Steve Godsey the power to make the appointment.

Jones has said Godsey has offered possible office space in a county building near the courthouse in Blountville.

Asked by the Times-News if there are any particular candidates for the potential new appointment, Jones said between Tuesday and Thursday three people had inquired about getting the job — and he guessed when word of the Herron’s mentioning the $64,000 gets around, more people would inquire.

Commissioner Eddie Williams said if the county considers changing the way it provides or funds veteran’s services, county officials need to first gather input from all the different veteran’s organizations.

“We need to hear from that segment of people,” Williams said. “I don’t think we’re at a point to change anything based on what information we’ve been given. I don’t see a problem. But for some reason, it’s been brought up.”

Williams said most people who’ve called him about the issue have been opposed to taking county funds from services provided through the American Legion’s Kingsport office.

“Whatever’s best for the veterans, that’s what I’m for,” said Commissioner Buddy King.

Commissioner Mark Vance said the same.

“We probably need to be gearing up to better serve the veterans coming back from Iraq,” Vance said. “But before we take away (from the currently funded programs) ... we need to see what we can do to enhance what they are doing. I would hate to see us take away from what’s worked for many, many years.”

Vance suggested the county should continue funding the office operated by the American Legion in Kingsport, but perhaps begin implementing a county office in Blountville.

Commissioner Jim King, the first to urge caution on the matter last week, said he had visited the American Legion office in Kingsport and easily learned a lot of information, including: that office files monthly reports with the county’s accounting department; in calendar year 2007, the Kingsport office processed 1,388 transactions for veterans; since Jan. 1 this year, the number is 516; and the office should be easy to locate because it is listed in the telephone book (“Right under the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars” of which Jones is a member and former post commander).

He also said he’d learned Ellen Burchfield has in fact passed the test the state administers to certify veteran’s service officers, as outlined in the 2004 bill cited by Jones.

Burchfield, an American Legion Post No. 3 employee, said she has taken the test, but pointed out she can’t be certified because she is not herself a veteran.

Bill Kilgore said when he contacted the state’s Department of Veteran’s Affairs while researching the issue last week, they described Burchfield as certified.

King said after seeing Burchfield at work he was sure of one thing: “She is constantly busy and helping in every way she can to get the veterans the benefits they are due.”

“If it’s not broken, we don’t need to try to fix it,” King said, adding that if the county feels the need to create a position as outlined by Jones, the option should be explored of asking the state to waive the part about having been a veteran in Burchfield’s case.

Burchfield has worked in the American Legion’s Kingsport office’s veterans assistance program since 1971.

“Her experience is an advantage,” King said.

Earlier in the week, Jones said his proposal was spurred on, in part, after he was contacted a couple of months ago by someone from Hawkins County’s veterans service office and they wanted to know why Sullivan County didn’t have a similar county position.

Nick Patrick, president of Kingsport-based Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 979, mentioned the Hawkins County office while making public comment on the issue Thursday.

As commissioners had discussed the issue, someone had mentioned that Burchfield provides assistance to any veteran that shows up at her office — including some from Hawkins County.

Patrick said Hawkins County “took great pains” in electing their last service officer.

“It took a long time to come around,” Patrick said.

He said Burchfield should turn away veterans from Hawkins County and send them to Rogersville to that office.

Patrick said he was at the meeting to let commissioners know his organization is watching what is going on with the issue in Sullivan County.

He questioned who would take up Burchfield’s role “if she falls down the stairs tomorrow.”

He said the Hawkins County veteran’s service officer has someone in training to take over if needed.

The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. June 16 on the second floor of the historic Sullivan County Courthouse. An opportunity for public comment occurs each month near the beginning of the meeting.

For more information about Sullivan County government, including how to contact individual commissioners or other office holders, visit www.sullivancounty.org.

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