Commissioners return 2017 funds surplus to veterans agency

New legal fight over funding averted

LISBON — The funding dispute between Columbiana County commissioners and county Veterans Services appears to have been resolved before it landed in court for a second consecutive year.

The VSC ended the year with $54,063 in unspent funds, and after the books are officially closed on 2017, commissioners intend to take that money and give it back to the VSC. The expectation is the VSC will then drop plans to sue commissioners to obtain the additional $50,000 in funding it requested.

Commissioner Mike Halleck reported following Friday’s meeting this is what they intend to do to resolve the dispute with the VSC, which voted Dec. 5 to appeal the decision of commissioners to appropriate the agency $658,000 in 2018 instead of the $708,000 it requested.

State law requires VSCs to receive funding equal to what a 0.5-mill in property taxes would generate, which is currently $873,000 per year. The VSC requested $695,000 for 2017, and when commissioners did not provide the entire amount, the VSC responded by filing a lawsuit despite a promise from Halleck to get them the funding later in the year as additional revenue came available. This is the approach commissioners take with every office, all of which end up getting what they need to get through the year.

The lawsuit was resolved in late July when commissioners agreed to give the VSC the additional $37,000 it demanded.

Friday’s meeting was the last of the year, and all county offices were required to turn in final expenditures by then so the county auditor’s office can close out the books for the year. All unspent funds are transferred into the county general fund and make up the year-end balance.

After seeing the VSC had $54,063 in unspent funds, Halleck said they will turn around and give almost $50,000 of it back at the next commissioners meeting on Jan. 3 in the expectation this will end any talk of a second lawsuit, which he said would be another waste of tax dollars.

“We’re committed to taking the high road and doing the right thing,” he said.

VSC Chief Administrator Kevan Wain said Commissioner Jim Hoppel had called him the week before and told him they intended to immediately give the VSC back its unspent funds in hopes of heading off the threatened lawsuit. After speaking with the VSC board president, Wain said they decided to take no further action.

“We’re going to take them at their word … I fully expect that they’re going to honor it,” he said.

The VSC had until Dec. 29 to file an appeal. Wain had asked commissioners for authorization to retain an attorney to sue them since the county prosecutor’s office could not represent the VSC because it also represents commissioners, creating a conflict of interest. He wanted a response before then because if commissioners failed to grant them permission to hire an attorney at county expense, the VSC could ask a judge to do so.

Wain said they had agreed to hold off approaching the court after receiving assurances from Hoppel that would be unnecessary.

Halleck said the disputes were never about whether the VSC would get the additional funding it wanted but commissioners needing to take this approach with every department as a way of maintaining some control over county spending.

“The public gets it, and they know no one is trying to underfund the veterans,” Halleck said.