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Council: No second day for MC veterans service officer

August 29, 2018

La PORTE — The La Porte County Council will not fund a second day for the part-time, Michigan City-based veterans service officer position for the remainder of 2018.

With no additional funding and having worked more hours than the position was budgeted for, the Michigan City VSO has only enough payroll left to work eight of the final 18 weeks, according to La Porte County Auditor Joie Winski.

In May, the council approved funding the part-time VSO position for one day a week for the remainder of 2018 in a decision Councilman Mark Yagelski called “a compromise” after veterans officials and some elected officials requested two days a week.

Since then, however, Yagelski stated the VSO and the La Porte County Commissioners, specifically Rich Mrozinski, violated their decision as part-time VSO George Watkins continued to work two days a week in Michigan City despite not having the budget to support the additional hours.

“We gave the money and you guys decided to do something way different and now you have to live with it,” Yagelski said.

“If we allow the department heads to dictate and override budgetary amounts of money, then there is no sense in having a county council,” Yagelski said further.

Councilmen Cary Kirkham, John Sullivan and Council President Randy Novak voted in favor of adding the second day – at a cost of $2,800 – while Councilmen Yagelski, Jeff Santana, Terry Garner and Mike Mollenhauer voted against it.

Kirkham argued the county has paid larger amounts for office supplies and felt the county “owed” the veterans more assistance.

“Most vets in La Porte County have been responsible taxpayers, they need to be taken care of,” Kirkham said.

Santana clarified, however, the county still has a full-time VSO in Joe Golec, who currently works Monday through Friday out of a La Porte-based office.

“We’re not closing the Michigan City office, all we’re saying is let’s do more with less and save the county taxpayers some money and have one person handle the load,” Santana said.

Yagelski said the full-time VSO position was never meant to stay in La Porte, with the intention being he would travel between La Porte and Michigan City and even to VFWs and American Legions.

“It’s all a matter of a scheduling situation. It’s not that difficult,” Santana said.

Santana said even though more people are working in an office doesn’t mean more people will come in.

Only $1,004 remains in the part-time VSOs payroll, according to Winski.

“They won’t have enough to last until the end of the year,” she said.

Winski stated there were two possible ways the position could be funded to reach the end of the year: By the commissioners approaching the council for an increase in their part-time budget or by the commissioners transferring excess personnel money into the part-time VSO’s payroll.

Winski stated the latter was “not likely” to happen as personnel accounts are “pretty much set in stone.”

Watkins was not present on Monday, but Commissioner Dr. Vidya Kora did read a letter into the record where Watkins apologized for any past confusion in regards to his retirement, which some council members had felt lied to about.

The council stated they’d previously been told Watkins was training Golec to replace him as he intended to retire and step away entirely from the veterans office.

“I truly felt at the time that I would be stepping aside for good, but there was no intent to deceive or mislead by either myself or Commissioner Mrozinski. Very simply, my plans changed and the case loads were increasing. The need for two days a week in Michigan City is there,” Watkins wrote.

Numerous veterans have attended both county council and county commissioner meetings, voicing their support of expanding the part-time VSO position in the recent months. Some have even argued for having a full-time VSO in both La Porte and Michigan City.

With around 10,000 veterans in La Porte County, many asserted the VSO position was vital due to the assistance and information they provide which helps many veterans gain access to benefits, insurance and other assistance they are eligible for and may not even be aware of.

While the part-time Michigan City position has little funding remaining for 2018, the council could still make a decision to fund and expand the position for 2019 at budget hearings set for this September.

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