County panel extends employment in VSO
Douglas County veterans turned out in force Thursday to look out for the office that serves them as the Douglas County Administration Committee considered extending employment for a limited-term employee in the Veterans Service Office.
The county office helps veterans access benefits earned during their military service.
Many expressed concern about a recent decision by Douglas County Administrator Andy Lisak to terminate Veterans Service Officer Trevor Welsch on Oct. 28. The decision came 12 days after Welsch pleaded no contest to an ordinance violation for theft in Washburn County for an incident that occurred in May and one day after a county budget session where supervisors referred the matter of the limited-term employee in his office to Thursday’s meeting.
The issue wasn’t on the agenda for discussion; however, Douglas County Board Chairman Doug Finn suggested the issue be addressed because of the interest during the human resource report.
"As an employer, we have processes, procedures and policies we have to follow," Lisak explained. "We’re not to discuss publicly personnel issues. We have to respect confidentiality." Lisak said the county will follow its procedures, which could take up to 60 days to resolve. Lisak told the panel he was confident Veterans Assistant Ellen Oaks had the resources and ability to continue providing veterans help.
For many years, the veterans service officer and an assistant provided service to veterans. However, last year, the County Board approved a limited-term position for 2015 to help with an increasing workload. That position was set to be eliminated at the end of the year when it didn’t fit within the county’s budget constraints.
With the termination of the veterans service officer, and the pending elimination of the limited-term employee, Oaks challenged the idea that she has the "resources" necessary to provide the needed service. Carissa Skifstad, the limited-term employee, has a caseload of her own, and the office is already down one person as a result of the Oct. 28 termination, she said.
Oaks said with a disciplinary process that could take 60 to 70 days, and the potential for a hiring process that could take another two to three months, she simply wouldn’t have the resources to do the job adequately.
"I do an excellent job, but the department is going to be reduced from … almost three full-time positions down to just one," Oaks said. "I’m not going to be able to function very well in that capacity." She said since Welsch joined the office, telephone and foot traffic, and claims have all increased because of his outreach efforts.
She urged the committee to consider a 12-month position to continue to serve the veterans.
"To me, this is a long-term issue that we’re already demonstrating a long-term need," said Supervisor Jim Paine. He said he understands the costs involved, but said the county has the obligation to do the "tough work" to meet that need.
Supervisor Sue Hendrickson agreed that given the circumstances there is a need to extend the position.
Finn said he asked the interim finance director, Candy Holm-Anderson, to figure out where the money would come from to continue the position; she suggested the 2015 contingency fund. "I don’t have a problem with the full year," Finn said.
"I think the Veterans Service Office needs the full-time employee," said Supervisor Rosemary Lear. "The veterans have to wait long enough for their benefits; they don’t need a waiting list … as well."
The panel voted unanimously to approve extending the position for one year as a full-time position.
Frank Hickman, a Vietnam veteran who told no one of his service for 40 years, thanked the committee for extending the position.
"You look around this room; the veterans who have all been denied benefits and services for 40 years and we are all getting old," said Hickman, an Air Force veteran who served his first tour in Vietnam from July 1971 to July 1972. "We need your help and we need the help of the county. Thank you."
Many veterans shared frustration that they wouldn’t have an opportunity to weigh in the decision to terminate Welsch. The issue was not on the agenda, and Administration Committee Chairman Alan Jaques stuck to the legally noticed agenda as required by Wisconsin open meeting laws.
"I believe it is very important that everyone have a chance to speak on the issues that matter to them," said Paine, himself a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corp. He said while the Committee has to stick to the agenda, the process is not over, and veterans will get their opportunity to speak on the issue at another time.
"I’m as eager to speak on it as everyone else here," Paine said.
Welsch told veterans the issue on Thursday’s meeting was not about him.
"I actually intend to have a public hearing; I have nothing to hide," Welsch said. He said the Administration Committee took care of the issue he was concerned about by extending Skifstad’s position for 12 months.
"It’s obvious to me that the support in this room is for Trevor," said Nicholas O’Kash, a U.S. Navy veteran who served from 1959 to 1963, and in the Cuban blockade. "… I hope you board members realize … I’m for Trevor. Get him back on the job."