Panel votes to fire Columbia County veterans service officer
Reinforcements have arrived.
The Columbia County Veterans Service Office — understaffed since Veterans Service Officer Richard Hasse was suspended with pay in September — is getting help from the assistant veterans service officer of neighboring Marquette County, who has been on Columbia County’s payroll as a limited-term employee since April 17.
Meanwhile, Hasse’s eight-month limbo might be on the verge of coming to an end.
After a 90-minute closed session Monday, the County Board’s Executive Committee voted to recommend the County Board dismiss Hasse, who was hired in 2012.
Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf said he does not know whether the proposed firing will be on the agenda for the County Board’s May 15 meeting.
In February, the county hired outside attorney Andrew Phillips to investigate the operations of the veterans service office. Monday’s closed session did not include discussion of any portion of Phillips’ findings, Ruf said.
Because the County Board has sole authority over the hiring and firing of veterans service officers, Ruf said the county would make the findings of Phillips’ investigation public before the board takes action regarding Hasse’s employment.
Also at Monday’s Executive Committee meeting, Assistant Veterans Service Officer Rebekka Cary — whom County Board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage appointed in January as acting veterans service officer — introduced Marquette County Assistant Veterans Service Officer Rick Erickson.
Erickson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Wisconsin Dells, had been assisting Cary on a voluntary basis, until Gove last month made an executive decision to hire him as a part-time limited-term employee.
He retains his part-time post in Marquette County, and divides his time between the two counties, he said.
“They’re not as busy there,” Erickson said of his Marquette County role. “And I can adjust my schedule to be where I need to be.”
Cary said the Veterans Administration estimated there were 4,185 military veterans in Columbia County in 2018. For Marquette County, the number is about 1,500, Erickson said.
Wisconsin county veterans service offices help veterans and their family members secure the benefits to which they are entitled.
“We are not the VA,” Erickson said. “We are veterans’ advocates.”
Cary said it has been confusing for Columbia County veterans — and for some, frustrating — not knowing what’s going on with the veterans service office while its leader has been suspended.
“There are questions about what’s going on, but I can’t answer most of them,” she said.
Even more frustrating, for Cary and the veterans, has been the delay in services that resulted from the loss of staffing since Hasse’s suspension. Cary said a veteran’s spouse volunteered to do clerical work such as answer phones and take messages, but if a veterans service officer is not available, veterans have had to wait for assistance.
“I can get to their calls,” Cary said. “I just prefer not to have them scheduled out a couple weeks.”
If Hasse is dismissed, both Cary and Erickson want the job as Columbia County veterans service officer.
Ruf said Cary would not be automatically promoted permanently if Hasse is fired. Rather, the job would be opened to any qualified applicant.
Erickson said the Columbia County post is closer to his home in Wisconsin Dells, and officials at Marquette County know that he would prefer to work in Columbia County.
Hasse was the Marquette County veterans service officer before coming to Columbia County, but Erickson said he did not work with him.
Cary retains her post as assistant veterans service officer, and that post would be open only if she were promoted to the top job.
Right now, she and Erickson said they share a common focus: minimizing delays in delivering services to Columbia County’s veterans, and getting the word out that office exists, and that she and Erickson can come to veterans’ hometowns, or even their homes, if they can’t get to the office on the first floor of the Columbia County Administration Building in Portage.
“Some veterans don’t know we exist,” Cary said. “We’re trying to let them know we exist, and we’re here to help them apply for all the benefits to which they are eligible.”