MOVA Commissioner Terrance Holliday & his deputy at Monday's hearing (Mario Figueroa of United War Veterans)
On Monday, the New York City Council Committee on Veterans, chaired by Council Member Eric Ulrich, held an oversight hearing on the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) and its role in serving New York City's roughly 200,000 veterans.
Since Mayor de Blasio was elected in November, there have been renewed discussions in the veterans community regarding MOVA, its resources, and its direction. Beside awaiting the mayor's decision on an appointment to head MOVA, the community has been lobbying the administration to allocate $250,000 dollars in the new budget to continue MOVA's benefit counselor initiative. The City Council also asked the mayor for additional funding toward mental health, employment, and legal assistance services for veterans.
So the lead-up to the first oversight hearing of MOVA in a number of years was filled with anticipation and concern. Would this be a hearing about MOVA's role in helping veterans or a popularity hearing from those who want Mr. Terrance Holliday to stay as MOVA commissioner? It turned out to be both.
At the packed hearing, Commissioner Holliday gave fairly standard testimony by addressing all the good things MOVA does. He spoke on how MOVA provides "advocacy, referral and short-term case management services to veterans." He talked about MOVA's coordination of the city's Veterans Advisory Board (VAB) and the establishment of a Women's Advisory Committee. He talked about the Indigent Burial Program, the City's Agency Liaisons; the office's veterans clothing initiative and the office's coordination of City Services.
Despite the commissioner's presence, this hearing was no different from others. The commissioner concluded his remarks and Council Member Andrew Cohen started asking a few questions. His question regarding the veteran liaisons at city agencies and their periodic training should warrant a future hearing - no one followed up by asking what the liaisons were trained in, who trained them, or even how they could verify the training actually took place.
However, it was when Council Member Paul Vallone asked the commissioner for his thoughts on his budget that everyone really leaned in. The community has known for many years that MOVA is underfunded. Every director or commissioner I have known has had to deal with the problem of underfunding. So when the Commissioner was asked if he was comfortable with his budget and what the Council could do to help, he incredibly stated that he has not needed money to get things done and that he obtains needed resources from other city agencies.
This comment came back to hurt him on a couple of occasions. When Council Member Vallone asked if MOVA has offices in the outer boroughs, the commissioner stated he only has an office of four individuals, at which point Council Member Vallone brought him back to his point of the office needing more money.
This happened again when the discussion turned to the benefit counselors and Council Member Vallone asked what the plan was when the Robin Hood funding that supports the counselors ends. The commissioner's response was: "I'm still thinking about it, still trying to figure it out, how to work it out."
Again, Council Member Vallone brought him back to the office needing money.
And as if to drive home the point, the Council Member asked for the current budget breakdown between salaries and services. The commissioner's response was that just about the entire budget goes to salary.
What the committee members and everyone in the room wanted to hear the commissioner say was that he wants and needs more money – not that he has to ask other agencies for help or that he would take money if it was given to him. How can MOVA provide more services and better assist veterans without better funding?
The commissioner's continued reiteration of getting it done without additional funding, but then talking about expanding services was conflicting and is detrimental to how MOVA can better help veterans. Sadly, this was then compounded by the commissioner leaving the hearing after he finished his testimony.
The remainder of the hearing consisted of several panels made of up people who gave testimony on how MOVA can better address the needs of veterans; why the city needs to fund the benefit counselors program; or that the commissioner is doing a great job. This last one was apparent as Council Member Ulrich asked all who testified to rate MOVA's performance on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best) and several individuals rated it a 10. This rating was more out of fondness for the commissioner and wanting to see him stay on than the role MOVA serves in helping veterans.
If the commissioner had stayed, he would have seen that the majority of those who testified agreed that MOVA's current mission as defined in the City Charter is too broad and too vague and everyone who testified agreed that MOVA needs more money.
The United States has been at war for over a decade and while veterans are shown respect by our local elected officials, we're still trying to find a seat at the political table. Testimony from Coco Culhane of the Veterans Advocacy Project said it best: "The Mayor's budget proposal, which offered a paltry few extra dollars to MOVA, sent a message about the priority of veteran's issues for this administration."
Veterans need help with housing, education, jobs, health care, and, most of all, knowledge of the array of programs that are available to them. MOVA still has the potential to do great things, but it is underfunded. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Members Ulrich and Vallone represent a change in direction - and they showed that with their budget commitments to veterans services. As the son of a veteran, Mayor de Blasio needs to get onboard though. MOVA is, after all, the "Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs." I know we can do better.
Joe Bello served 11 years in the US Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veteran's advocate in New York City for almost two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.