In a rare interview with the American-Statesman, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush on Friday said that he had ordered layoffs at a veterans assistance agency he oversees as part of an effort to “emphasize government efficiency.”
Bush said the moves, which included the dismissals of the top two officials at the agency, as well as at least a half-dozen other people, will not harm services provided by the Veterans Land Board.
The agency offers low-interest loans to veterans to buy property or improve homes, operates nursing homes for veterans and oversees cemeteries for veterans.
Bush said that “in any large organization there are changes, and we’re moving in the right direction. We want to emphasize government efficiency, maximizing value out of all our foot soldiers in the Veterans Land Board operations.”
In the wake of the mid-August dismissals, which included at least two marketing specialists and the executive officer for operations, the program compliance manager, and the accounting manager, Bush was silent about the reasons for the abrupt moves.
“The purpose of this letter is to notify you that, as part of the General Land Office reorganization, your position has been eliminated,” Mark Havens, the agency’s chief clerk, had written in termination letters. “As a result, your employment with the GLO is being terminated and today will be your last day in the office. I realize that this is difficult news for you.”
The employees who lost their jobs remained on the payroll through Sept. 7.
Ken Wallingford, who took over the agency as his colleagues were being dismissed, retired at the end of August. In all, at least 10 people appeared to leave the agency in August. In 2017, 113 people worked at the Veterans Land Board, according to a Sunset Advisory Commission report.
Bush told the Statesman he is reviewing candidate applications for the top job. Havens is the interim director.
The moves echo the first nine months of Bush’s term, which began in early 2015, when at least 111 General Land Office employees were fired, retired or quit — about 17 percent of the agency’s workforce.
At the time, Bush called it a “reboot.”
“We face many threats, asymmetric threats that were probably not around 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, and many of the threats aren’t external, though we can say that legislators sometimes present those challenges, externally we’re doing fine,” Bush said then. “The real threat is internally.”
The August changes came as the Veterans Land Board had been expanding its advertising efforts.
Last year, the agency spent $138,000 on a recreational vehicle to take to veterans appreciation events around Texas to advertise the work of the agency. Agency officials also spent $12,000 for a marketing wrap on the vehicle, as well as $9,000 on oil changes, storage, toll charges and fuel for the vehicle, according to records obtained by the Statesman through a request under the Texas Public Information Act.
The marketing and outreach division recommended a $1.35 million budget for the 2020-21 biennium; Bush recently approved a $500,000 budget. A contract with an advertising firm to buy air time for a TV and radio campaign and billboards and for a paid email advertising campaign was not renewed.
Bush told the Statesman that marketing “is not meant to make a market, it’s to serve the existing market.”
He said it’s too early to tell if the RV expense has paid off.
Veterans groups said they would watch the changes keenly.
“In general, any time you have a disruption in an agency or a group that serves veterans there’s a concern it could affect the services veterans receive or rely on over there,” Texas Coalition of Veterans Organizations legislative director Jim Brennan said. “We would always rather see stability in leadership. As with any agency, when you saw a lot of people with a great deal of experience leaving, that can’t help but impact how things are going.”
Texas is home to roughly 1.6 million veterans, according to a 2016 report by the Texas Workforce Investment Council.
“I’ve had no complaints about” the agency, said Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars Adjutant/Quartermaster Roy Grona. “I’ve utilized their services, and they’ve always been reactive, always supported all our veterans.”