Gotham Gazette

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Creating the Department of Veterans Services

city hall military flags

armed services flags at city hall (photo via @BilldeBlasio)

As we head into Veterans Day, military veterans and their families received historic news last week when the de Blasio administration and the City Council, under the leadership of Speaker Mark-Viverto and Council Member Eric Ulrich, chair of the veterans committee, came to an agreement on creating a new Department of Veterans Services.

This new department will replace the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA), creating an agency with more resources better suited to help the city’s large and diverse veterans community find and access resources. New York City will, of course, become the largest municipality in the country to have established an agency solely dedicated to veterans and their family members.

Most importantly, though, creating this new department will ensure that city efforts to help veterans will be properly funded every year, while moving city contracts awarded to local veteran service providers at a quicker pace, instead of through other city agencies more unfamiliar with the community’s needs.

However, this didn’t happen in a vacuum and it took a whole lot of work to accomplish. And, even now that it is happening, there is still much work to do.

From the beginning the administration seemed against the idea of a new department, with MOVA Commissioner Loree Sutton being non-committal on the bill at a hearing in January and Mayor de Blasio stating to reporters: "I have never been convinced that turning an office into a department in any subject matter is really the way to get things done best.”

Their opposition was confirmed in May when Commissioner Sutton wrote a Daily News op-ed in which she came out against the proposal, saying that it would lead to “costly duplication of city services and put the office at a greater remove from City Hall.” Though it was not exactly shocking to see, coming from the commissioner – who is supposed to be the community’s top government “advocate” - this didn’t sit well with the city veterans.

And then came the mayor’s appointment of Veterans Advisory Board members, which set in motion a spring and early summer of disappointment and anger from veterans on a number of issues and led many in the community to believe that there was zero traction on veterans issues at City Hall. However, the administration appeared to make up for these issues in late June when the new fiscal year 2016 budget was approved and veterans saw a significant increase and commitment from the city.

However, by then damage had been done and there was still no new department to help improve resources available to the city’s veterans. Along with that substantive problem, there was also poor messaging on the administration’s part. As the Mayor recently said to the Daily News editorial board, “I think there is a gap between reality and perception and I have to constantly take responsibility. If I got all this product and I’m not making it clear enough to people, of course that’s on me.”

Meanwhile, Council Member Ulrich was whipping votes and continuing his push for the bill  – slowly taking the time to move the legislation along by building a coalition of veterans and advocates from throughout the five boroughs, holding hearings on the legislation while working to get other Council members to sign on and, essentially, being patient and flexible with the administration.

The support of Speaker Mark-Viverito was of course key, and with enough sponsors to override a possible de Blasio veto, Council Member Ulrich and his colleagues were able to force the mayor's hand. His decision to back the bill also seems to have come as he eyed Veterans Day and the need to do something significant to show the community he is serious about supporting those who have given so much.

Still, Council Member Ulrich surely negotiated well, and we don’t know what he may have had to offer in order to come to a final deal.

Now, here we are. A historic victory that might possibility be the greatest piece of legislation for veterans in New York City history. But is this the end? No. This new department will change the way we see the city operate in helping veterans and their family members, but there are still many issues to work on, including ensuring that more city contracts are awarded to veteran-owned businesses, for example. And, the new department must be organized and run effectively, helping veterans and their family members access education, health care, and employment resources.

It is essential, of course, that Mayor de Blasio has come around to help make this happen, and we look forward to celebrating with him at the bill-signing. First, we will celebrate with and thank Speaker Mark-Viverito, Council Member Ulrich, the rest of the City Council, and Public Advocate Letitia James.

Elected officials are moving this legislation, with its roots in the advocacy and the service of veterans and our allies. John Rowan, Lee Covino, Paul Narson, Jason Hansman, Oswaldo Pereira, Tireak Tulloch, Paul Rieckhoff, Kristen Rouse, Ryan Graham, Fang Wong, Paul Schottenhamel and Redmond Haskins all contributed significantly to this work and make our community strong.

We also cannot forget Pat Toro and Ed Daniels, who have passed away but were important in making this happen. As with others we have lost, we remember them as we go forward with this work, ensuring that public policy honors the sacrifice made by our military veterans and their families.

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.

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