An audit released Tuesday found relationships between the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs and veterans service groups are strained, prompting lawmakers to tell the state agency to make some changes.
An audit released Tuesday found relationships between the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs and veterans service groups are strained, prompting lawmakers to tell the state agency to make some changes.“After speaking with the commission staff and some veterans service organization staff, we concluded that the relationship exists between them — especially at the leadership level — could be characterized more as adversarial than cooperative in nature,” auditors concluded.Rep. Tom Burroughs, a Kansas City Democrat, expressed concern the ongoing sour relations could cause problems for veterans, who rely on the commission for help getting their benefits.“We need to send a strong message that there needs to be a more cooperative working relationship, that veterans know that we care about the care they are receiving,” Burroughs said.Commission Executive Director George Webb acknowledged relations between the agency and such groups as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have been tense since 2005. That’s when the state ethics commission found problems with an employment agreement for veterans commission employees who helped veterans file federal claims for cash aid and medical services.For decades until 1997, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion had helped veterans. Then, in 1997, the groups signed an agreement with the Commission on Veterans Affairs that called for commission employees to help the veterans. But the employees were also paid by veterans groups, allowing those groups to have access to the veterans.In September 2005, the state ethics commission said the arrangement violated conflict-of-interest laws, and lawmakers sought to change it. The organizations were concerned Webb wasn’t supporting them in the legislative process, and their relationships with the state agency haven’t improved since.Now, veterans can seek help from either group or the commission. A state grant program administered by the commission pays the groups to hire staff to help the veterans.Webb, who is leaving his post after more than four years, said the commission would seek to improve relations.“It’s a two-way street,” he said, adding that his door was always open to veterans groups, but few have come talk with him directly during his tenure.Webb didn’t offer specifics on how the commission would mend fences with the veterans groups, which did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.Burroughs said he was hoping for specifics.“I’m a little suspect of the comments,” he said.It wasn’t the first time legislators have shown concern about the veterans commission. During the 2008 session, funding for the agency was stripped from initial budget bills over worries about relations with veterans organizations and the commission’s operations.Eventually, legislators restored the commissions $22 million funding and added more money to expand outreach programs.The audit also raised concerns about the commission’s ability to maintain adequate staffing levels at the Kansas Soldiers’ Home in Dodge City. Webb noted the agency used increase funding from the Legislature to beef up the home’s staff after it was cited for substandard conditions due in part to a shortage of nurses. The home has an average of 150 residents, Webb said.The commission has more than 550 full-time staff positions, including staff at the Dodge City facility, the Kansas Veterans Home in Winfield, state veterans cemeteries and service field offices.More than 250,000 veterans live in Kansas, which is home to Fort Leavenworth, Fort Riley and McConnell Air Force Base.