Mayor de Blasio and Council members announce budget deal (photo: William Alatriste)
With almost half of Mayor Bill de Blasio's term in office complete, it has been well-documented that military veterans have seen a number of administration policies as perplexing and frustrating. What's made this all the more disappointing is that the mayor has unique insight into the difficulties veterans and their family members face through the experience of his own father, a World War II veteran who struggled when he came home.
As a result of the administration's decisions and the belief that we weren't being heard, my group (NY MetroVets) banded together with several other veterans groups to push for real progress. After months of testimony at hearings and engaging with local elected officials and the media - while keeping the veterans community informed and engaged - our hard work paid off in the city budget.
Late last week the City Council voted to adopt the New York City Fiscal Year 2016 budget. The spending plan, which starts July 1, contains an increase of almost $2.9 million dollars for veterans services.
This increase will double the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) budget and allow Commissioner Loree Sutton to not only hire additional staff but perhaps even address some veterans issues that are outside the mayor's strategic plan. It also puts money into the city's veterans homelessness-fighting initiative to assist the federal Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on the final push to end veteran homelessness here in New York City.
Lastly, and quite significantly, the Council's veterans initiative was more than doubled with funding for organizations that will provide direct services (legal, health services, job placement, and support programs) for veterans and their family members.
All in all, while some may still be disappointed, this is a victory and there is much to be happy about.
To be clear, more could have been done for veterans. But, take stock at what has just been accomplished after much effort and what felt like a steep uphill climb. As an advocate for 20 years, I can say that the budget increases and commitment from city government have not happened on this scale in a very long time. The wins are especially important now as the country was at war over the last decade-plus. It also shows that with all the groups, non-profits, and others fighting for funding, we were able to have our community's voice heard and some of our needs directly addressed. Progress.
Are there still battles to be fought? Absolutely. This budget is a move in the right direction, but this increase can be expanded by the administration in future spending plans, with further prioritiaiton of veterans services. With the talk of a new city Department of Veterans Affairs tabled (for now) we will need to work with the city to see how we can get budgetary funding to our local veteran organizations - which are doing the work on the ground and in the community - faster than what the current process allows. Veterans and our allies will also need to watch what Commissioner Sutton does with her newly increased budget and we look forward to seeing where veterans fit into First Lady Chirlane McCray's mental health roadmap initiative.
With veterans still returning home from overseas, with those already here, and with many coming to New York City for economic opportunity, we look to the administration, through its policies and its agencies, to do even more to help veterans.
But today I thank Mayor de Blasio, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Members Eric Ulrich and Paul Vallone, and the rest of the Council's veterans committee for their work and acknowledgment of the challenges veterans face and attention we deserve. I encourage my fellow veterans to enjoy the moment, focus on tracking smart, helpful spending by our government, ready to access new and improved services, and prepare to begin the work all over again toward Fiscal Year 2017.
Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veterans advocate in New York City for two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.