Following publication of a story July 5 on a
proposed property tax levy to aid Kitsap’s veterans and
non-veteran homeless, I heard from Abby Burlingame, who challenged
Kitsap County’s actions related to its Veterans Assistance Fund
over the past two years.
Burlingame, who ran against incumbent Commissioner Josh Brown in
2010, said, “During the campaign I raised concerns that the
county was borrowing money from that fund to balance their
budget. I would like to know if they paid it back. Was that
question asked during your interview? If that question was not
asked, I would like to know why not.”
I did not ask that question as I interviewed Brown for the
recent article. But in response to Burlingame’s questions, I called
Brown last week and a got a few answers to some questions she
First, a little background. The county under state law collects
and distributes money on behalf of indigent veterans. In the grand
scheme of things, it’s not much, 1 and 1/8 cents per $1,000 of
assessed value. But before 2006, the county didn’t have a
systematic way of getting the money to veterans. That was done
informally, through the local Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“By 2005, over $1 million had accrued in the fund because it had
been spending less than what it had been taking in,” said Leif
Bentsen, who works for the county part-time coordinating the
Veterans Assistance Program.
The fund was then handled by the auditor’s office. In 2006 the
board of county commissions assumed authority of the fund and
turned the administration over to the department of personnel &
human services. In December 2006, under the same state law, the
Kitsap County Veterans Advisory Board was created.
“When my department took it over,” said Bentsen, “we realized
that 1) having the money sitting in the bank wasn’t helping
veterans; and 2) many vets-in-need were slipping through cracks
under the previous system. Part of the problem was that the
majority of veterans didn’t know that it even existed, including
myself until I was given the responsibility of overseeing it and
organizing the new board.”
By 2009, as the recession was raging full blast, the veteran’s
fund still was underspent. It had a balance of $900,000 and the
program that year had a projected budget of about half that amount.
The county technically didn’t “borrow” money from the fund, but
state law allows local governments to lower the amount collected
when the balance in the fund exceeds the total amount that could be
collected, in this case, $320,000 in 2009.
“It allows us to take that $320,000 and apply it to our general
fund program, 70 percent of which is criminal justice,” Brown said
at the time. “If we didn’t dip into these reserves this one time,
we would need to cut another $320,000 from the general fund.”
That’s because the county is limited as to how much it can raise
taxes in any given year to 1 percent over the previous year (not
counting new construction). The net effect, as Burlingame points
out, was $320,000 less for the veterans fund and $320,000 more for
the general fund.
This February, Brown backed proposed legislation that
would have separated the veterans fund levy from the general
fund levy. The effect, said Brown and legislators who supported
the bill, would be to eliminate competition between the two funds.
With the veterans fund tax as a stand-alone, there would be no more
of the push-me-pull-you syndrome. Money for veterans could be
collected and the county could collect the equivalent $320,000, or
whatever it would be in that year, for the general fund. And if you
said that amounts to a tax increase, you are correct.
Burlingame wanted to know why, if the veterans fund was so flush
that the county could tap it in 2009, there is now a proposal on
the table to implement a separate levy specifically for homeless
vets and other homeless people. Revenue from the levy would be
split 50/50 between vets and non-vets. Advisory boards for each
group would make recommendations about allocation of funds.
She also wanted to know, now that the veterans are apparently in
such dire need, if the county intends to replenish the
“The reason I mention this is not to have any kind of
vindication on the issue, it is because our budget is in serious
jeopardy,” Burlingame wrote to me in an email. “Our county
commissioners continually make contradictory statements regarding
the condition of our budget and The Sun allows them to gloss over
the ramifications of those choices. While reporters may recognize
these transfers of money when they happen, they never address how
those previous decisions end up affecting people like the veterans
in the future. They never attach responsibility to the politicians
who made the decision and said everything would be fine.”
So here are the questions I asked Brown, with his responses.
- In 2009 the board eliminated collections to the
Veterans Assistance Fund for one year. Do you feel any sense of
responsibility for the fact that the county’s veterans assistance
program expenses now exceed revenues?
“I guess I don’t look at it that way,” said Brown, who
elaborated at length about the context in which that decision was
In the first place, said Brown, the Veterans Assistance Fund was
being underutilized when he took office in 2007. Informal
distribution through the VFW worked in previous years, but as new
generations of soldiers returned home from service, they did not so
much connect with that organization. The goal of county officials
when Brown arrived was to get the funds out into circulation on
behalf of vets. Brown didn’t claim credit for the effort, but he
did support it. His own family has military ties, and he is a
strong supporter of veterans, he said.
“It’s been just a phenomenal success,” Brown said. “And today,
we are helping many more vets than we did in the past.
That’s one of the reasons the fund balance is down. County and
local social service workers became better at identifying and
connecting with veterans in need.
“In a way we’re a bit of victims of our own success,” Brown
The second point of context was the state of the economy during
late 2009, when the county and other public agencies were facing
unprecedented funding shortfalls. Brown described revenues at the
time as “a falling knife.”
“Sale tax revenues were dropping precipitously. We were dealing
with a major financial crisis, not just as a nation but locally,”
The board weighed the fact that the veterans fund had nearly $1
million, for a budget of around $400,000, as compared to what had
been whittled down to a $4 million reserve in the in the general
fund balance. To put that in context, county general fund revenues
in 2007, when Brown took office, were about $86 million, he said.
They’re now down to $78 million, and the reserve fund has been
built up to $7 million. In 2009, the board of commissioners was
worried about exhausting its reserve fund. So they chose to use the
veterans fund to help balance the budget.
“This was not a decision the commissioners made lightly,” Brown
- Now that the economy has more or less stabilized (if
not recovered) why wouldn’t the board consider reimbursing the
veterans fund, as Burlingame has suggested, for the amount it was
unable to collect in 2009, about $320,000?
Brown says that would be a stopgap measure. At the current rate
of consumption, $320,000 would last about 8 months.
“I concede there’d be 8 more months of funds,” Brown said, but
he denies the action taken in 2009 caused the problems the fund is
Were the board to consider making the transfer, Brown said, it
would force a choice between shoring up the veterans fund and
cutting essential services, like law enforcement. In the long run,
it would not solve the issue of sustainable funding for vets, Brown
The vets levy, however, has been successful in King County and
Brown thinks it could help address the sustainability problem here.
Although not openly endorsing the proposal, Brown said, he’s open
to discussing its merits, despite the fact it involves the dreaded
- The bill separating the veterans fund from the general
fund would have prevented the board from making the budget shift in
2009. Earlier this year, you seemed to favor what you described as
elimination of competition between the funds, and yet the law as it
is helped you balance the budget in 2009. Can you comment on this
Brown reiterated his goal, and the goal of county veterans
advocates, is to provide sustainable funding for veterans. The
bill, which didn’t make it out of committee, would have helped do
so by protecting the fund from fluctuations in the general
The bill would have allowed for a small — Brown emphasizes — tax
increase, because the money now going to veterans would have been
taken out of the general fund maximum in any given year, essential
creating more taxing capacity. The impact to individual taxpayers
would have been minimal, Brown said. For the owner of a $250,000
home, the 1 and 1/8 cents per $1,000 vets fund levy amounts to
about $2.80 per year.
Had the law passed, said Brown, he would have pushed — and still
may — for a “council-matic” increase in the vets levy. Brown
suggested a penny per $1,000 increase, or an additional $2.50 per
year on the same $250,000 home. That would generate about $300,000,
which would have a substantial impact on the fund, Brown said,
adding it’s the least we can do for our vets.
State of the Vets Fund