The state Department of Veterans Affairs last week funded 26 Oregon counties with a total of $540,000 to support county veteran service efforts - and Curry County, with the largest percentage of veterans per capita in the state, received $2,300, or .004 percent of available funds.
This one-time grant was awarded in a competitive process - and County Commissioner Susan Brown, who helped write the grant for the veterans services department, was not pleased with the outcome, nor the methodology by which the grant application was approved.
"I'm a little miffed by this," she said. "I'm very frustrated."
Nineteen agencies received the full funding they requested. Six others received the same amount as Curry County: Clatsop, Coos, Jefferson, Lincoln, Tillamook and Wasco - the minimum amount awarded to any one entity.
Among the winners were Deschutes County, garnering $31,046; Lane, with $37,453; Multnomah, with 74,877; Umatilla with $53,540; Washington, with $40,723; Columbia, with $41,700; and Douglas County with $50,406.
Even if the money had been divided evenly among the 34 applicants, Curry County would have received $17,647.
Curry County's grant application received 332 points out of 500 - a "grade" of 66 - on its grant application. The lowest scores were in costs and innovation, Brown said.
Last month, county commissioners began discussion of a grant for which Veteran's Service Officer (VSO) Kimberly O'Neal wanted to apply to get an additional person to help her with her caseload and get more veterans into the system.
Smith and Itzen said such a grant should be easy to obtain as more than 3,600 veterans call Curry County home; Itzen suggested she ask for "whatever was needed to get a full-time assistant."
But Brown, who has written numerous successful grants, said the number of veterans in a county was irrelevant to this grant, and she believed asking for even $60,000 - 10 percent of the funding available for up to 34 agencies - was likely to fail.
"That's asking for too much," she said. "That's 10 percent. It makes the grant unreasonable."
"We were fine in asking what we asked for," Smith said. "Umatilla got $53,500? Josephine, $68,000. It's unfortunate we didn't get the grant. But I don't want to place the blame on anyone (for its failure). And I would expect my colleagues to do the same for me."
Smith said he knew the grant was coming and, as the liaison to her department, had been working with O'Neal in anticipation of it.
Ultimately, Brown helped O'Neal write the grant, asking for $45,000 for a half-time assistant VSO - including travel and training funds - and an additional $15,000 for the "creative outreach," the grant required, such as using billboards, pamphlets and other media to let veterans know what benefits are available to them.
No mention of money was made in last month's commissioner motion to approve O'Neal's applying for the grant, but Brown and O'Neal said Smith "insisted" she apply for the full $60,000.
"The decision was made on (O'Neal's) recommendation, to ask for a half-time person," Itzen said. "I said, 'As long as we're going for it, go for the whole thing (a full-time person). I felt strongly they should have applied for the whole enchilada. I lost the argument."
Brown said she was more displeased about how the process was handled at the commissioner level, and voted against the December motion based on those feelings.
"(O'Neal) should never have been told how much to apply for," Brown said. "She was strong-armed into it and she had no choice but to apply for that ($60,000). I don't think we should be directing our department heads how to run their departments and tell them how to write their grants. I'm not going to do it.
"It should have been left to (O'Neal) - what was reasonable, feasible, what was possible," she added. "If we'd applied for less, I believe we would've had a better chance of getting more."
"What we wanted was a full-time VSO officer," Smith said, noting that a monetary value was not included in the motion. "We acquiesced to what she wanted."
Another reason Brown voted against the motion was because the grant was looking for innovative recruiting ideas, and the idea of specifically allocating monies for such things as "brochures, pamphlets and billboards" constricts what O'Neal can do - and doesn't appeal to those evaluating the grant requests, she said.
A VSO's work
O'Neal's work entails collecting powers of attorney (POAs) from veterans, so she can, on their behalf, work to obtain benefits due them. Without giving POAs to a veterans' service officer, veterans are not allowed to apply for those benefits.
"Most veterans don't know they're eligible for benefits," she said. "Ninety-nine of them will tell you, 'I'm not disabled.' They think a veteran who goes to combat is eligible for benefits. Or the vet who comes back and suffers immense PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) or is missing a limb.
"They don't think about their wife, or that they can get assisted living, or a ramp for their home," she added. "So many of avenues of benefits are not known about. Education is key."
O'Neal was able to add 229 new veterans to Curry County's rolls between June 2012 and October 2013, Brown said. With another service officer focused in Brookings, O'Neal aimed to double that.
"She's out there hustling," Brown said of O'Neal. "If she had a part-time assistant and could do more public outreach, we could almost triple that number. She was set up for failure, having been forced to apply for that much."
O'Neal - who as of last week had yet to even receive notice of having received the $2,300 - said she was defeated.
"That one word has just resonated with me," she said. "Defeat. It was utter shock and disbelief. I think I'm still stunned."
She said she thought her office would land a larger amount, not just the "leftovers" from the counties that secured, in many cases, more than 10 times more than Curry.
"It was a frustrating process from the beginning," O'Neal said. "Then to be told you get the leftovers? We were denied the grant. Nineteen counties got 100 percent of what they asked for, and rest of us got what was left over."
She said she was even more shocked because she was told by someone at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Salem - she declined to name him - that officials in Salem understood Curry County's financial plight. He even went so far as to say the grant was written with Curry County in mind.
Smith said in December that his work "greasing the wheels" in Salem made him feel confident Curry County would receive the grant, as well.
"They 'got it' at the state legislature," he said. "I think the granting agency will get it as well. I've been trying to make our case about who'd be the end-all, be-all of the grant. I think we can be successful."
Money in the community
For every dollar in veterans benefits secured in the county, some $7 is generated as that money moves from cash register to paycheck.
The number of POAs agencies obtain benefit the entire county, Brown noted.
Veterans' benefits brought $4 million to the area before O'Neal was hired; her work in the past 18 months attracting more to sign up for those benefits has brought an additional $7 million into the community.
"This is what they're living on, paying their rent, buying groceries," Brown said. "This is money that stays in the county."
She plans to ask the state for the scorecard used to evaluate grants.
The methodology for grading grants varies, but this one based its "scores" on the number of POAs a county or district has collected and how well plans have been implemented. Part of the score is given at the committee's discretion.
Brown said she would have applied for $25,000 "and felt confident. I think $60,000 threw us out of the running.
"We could've had a part-time person working with Kim - $25,000 would have been totally reasonable," she said. "I think they looked at that and said, 'Yeah, $60,000 for Curry County?'"
"What would've worked better is if it didn't feel like I was put into a box of what I could and couldn't apply for, and how I could and couldn't apply for it," O'Neal said, noting that she had not been informed about the public meeting at which the grant was discussed. "This isn't just, 'Oh, I didn't get a grant.' This is, 'Oh my gosh! How can I keep going on? How can I keep doing more for the veterans?'"
O'Neal said she will have to let her part-time assistant go.
"It's not going to get better, its going to get far worse," she said. It's a huge disservice to our veterans. And my dreams got flushed down the drain. I had some really big plans for this office - some really big visions. This office is my passion. I guess I counted my chickens before they hatched."