Bell County, home to Fort Hood and one of the largest populations of veterans in Texas, finally appears ready to comply with state law and hire a veterans county service officer, officials said Tuesday.
Such service officers help veterans file disability claims and advocate on their behalf, but last month the American-Statesman reported that Bell County is the only county not to follow a state law requiring it to employ a full-time veterans service officer or fund a veterans service office. The Legislature in 1987 passed a law requiring counties with more than 200,000 residents to employ a full-time service officer.
County officials said a job description for the position would likely be posted before the end of the year, with details such as support staff still needing to be worked out.
Since 1996, Bell County has depended on a volunteer veterans liaison to assist local vets. But on Tuesday, that volunteer told county commissioners that he had never acted as a county service officer.
“We’ve never done any claims work,” said Bell County attorney Jim Endicott, a former general counsel for the Department of Veterans Affairs who has volunteered for the county for nearly two decades. “That’s not why it was there.”
Endicott said he would refer veterans seeking claims help to more specialized officers, often state employees. He said he saw very few veterans in his role as liaison: “Five or six per year would be a lot of contacts.”
Bell County officials had also pointed to the large number of volunteers and Texas Veterans Commission officers in the county available to help veterans with their claims. But state officials say a historic backlog of disability claims has resulted in long waiting times for state officers.
That includes Bell County. In 2011 and 2012, according to state figures, more than 1,100 veterans showed up to see state officers in Temple for help, but walked away unserved because of long waits.
Commissioner John Fisher said that Bell County officials never heard from veteran advocates in the county telling them of unmet needs. “The assumption was, everything was OK,” he said. “Evidently not, given all of the information that has come out.”
Bell County Judge Jon Burrows has called the law an unfunded mandate, and he said Tuesday the county had been trying to “save taxpayer money.”
“There hadn’t been an outcry from the public, but maybe because they didn’t know we were there,” Burrows said. “Maybe that’s our fault. … There was never any reluctance on our part to do what we needed to do.”
Veteran county service officers go through extensive state training to keep up with VA disability claims rules, which have grown more complex in recent years, especially as more veterans file claims for conditions such as traumatic brain injuries. Well-trained service officers are considered vital to the effort to reduce the VA’s backlog, because they can produce fully developed claims that federal workers can process more quickly.
State officials have authorized more than $5 million to hire emergency state claims workers to help reduce the backlog. And, while county service officers play similar roles, they also serve as advocates within local governments for veterans needs.
Last week, Gov. Rick Perry weighed in, trumpeting the importance of county service officers. “Veteran County Service Officers have played an important role in these efforts to help get our veterans the benefits they qualify for, and they serve as a critical link to local and community resources,” Perry spokesman Josh Havens said in a statement in response to questions from the Statesman. “As elected officials, we should constantly be looking for ways to better serve those who have served our country in the armed forces.”
Bell County officials appeared close to tapping a local volunteer service officer, Willie Browning, who helps veterans on a part-time basis. Browning’s claims efforts are so popular that veterans often line up several hours before dawn to ensure an 8 a.m. appointment.
What we reported
An American-Statesman investigation Oct. 27 reported that officials in Bell County, home to Fort Hood and one of the largest veteran populations in Texas, had chosen not to employ a full-time veterans service officer despite a state law requiring them to do so. Demand for veterans services in Bell County and elsewhere frequently exceeds the capacity of available services, prompting some veterans to line up before dawn to get an appointment.