Friday, October 16, 2009

Budget cuts “domino effect” delays education benefits to Veterans

16 October 2009

On May 1, 2009, the Veterans Affairs began accepting applications for the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Under this program, and in return for their military service, veterans and their dependents would receive thirty-six months of tuition to the equivalent of their states most expensive public school, as well as $1000 yearly to cover books and fees. But most important to veterans was the inclusion of a personal living expense enabling student veterans to focus on their studies instead of worrying about bills (the living expense rate for 92697 is currently $2152 per month).

Authorizations to begin paying students and their universities began on August 1, 2009. Unfortunately, implementation of the tuition, fees, and allowances lagged due to government undersight, and a vast shortage in claims processing personnel; for veterans in California, and as a result of the state budget cuts, the news only got worse.

As a veteran and student affected by the VA’s mishap, I sat down with Adeli Duron, the Program Coordinator for UCI’s Center for Service in Action (formerly the UCI Volunteer Center), and current UCI Veterans Services Coordinator, to get the scoop on the UC budget cuts, the VA, and what UCI’s 120 student veterans need to know about the delay in their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

Q. How did you end up working as the Veteran Services Coordinator, and what did you do before this position?

A. Before this position, I was doing admissions for UCI. I was an admissions counselor, and before that, I graduated from UCI. I was hired on this position, mostly because of the other part of this position, which is the Center for Service in Action; my volunteer stuff, and my background as a student helped as well. I was interested in the veteran’s position because, well, they went together. But also because a cousin of mine had just joined the Army, so a part of it was just self-interest in relation to family.

Q. As a UC employee, I imagine you are familiar with the UC budget cuts. How are you personally affected by these cuts?

A. On a personal level—all employees have been furloughed. So, yes, I am receiving a pay reduction.

Q. And how has your department, or office been affected by the cuts?

A. In terms of department, budgets are usually a year behind. So by the time we get our budget, we don’t officially get our “real budget” until January of the following year, even though it’s on an academic year. The fiscal year is July 1st through June 30th. So, we’re working on a fake budget right now. Our department has 15% in proposed cuts this year [’09-‘10], on top of 8% last year. It’s inconclusive where the department can afford to cut, and it doesn’t necessarily happen evenly, especially since some of our departments have federally funded programs that are mandated, like “International Center,” and “Disabilities.”

For us, I know that there were specific programs that could possibly be cut. As it is, our office, the Center for Service in Action, aside from salary, only has $3000 in permanent funding for programming. That comes straight from the UC system. So, technically, if we get cut [15%], it will come from that $3000.

The other funding that we work off of, mostly through the Center for Service in Action, is money coming from student fees. There is a portion of the overall student fees that are reallocated to different departments. I don’t know what our Department’s whole budget is, but when there are things we need, my goal is to simply find them for as cost effective as I can. That can include food or supplies for any events that we might be doing. On a regular year, we normally had leftover funding, like a rollover, or carryover. This is the year that all the money we’ve been saving—well, if it isn’t spent, we’re not going to get to keep.

Q. What happened to it, or, where is it going?

A. The UC takes it back, and redistributes it. So, there’s no longer any guarantee that a department will get to keep any extras. In the “good times,” I guess you could say we got to keep it. Even last year, for ’08-’09, when we knew that things were looking bad, we were lucky enough to be able to keep our extras. This year, we’re counting on not keeping it.

Q. Are the UC budget cuts affecting the Veterans Services portion of your job?

A. Only 50% of my salary [Program Coordinator for UCI Center for Service in Action] is funded for Veterans Services. That comes out of the UC budget. For some reason, that aspect of my job is funded through Judicial Affairs, for whatever reason, I don’t know. Maybe the Veterans position was originally allocated to them? So, that is where half of my salary comes from.

The only money we get from the VA to do all of this is a stipend that pays $7 per file that I process. So, for every given person… okay, when I work on your file, I am only given $7, and that is to be used for ‘professional development.’ We get it in one lump sum, technically, at the end of the year, for the previous calendar year, but it doesn’t really come in until March.

Q. So, you could potentially spend several hours, or a whole workday on a single file, and the VA is only going to pay you $7 for that whole file? That’s less than $1 an hour!

A. That generally checks out to about $8800 a year, paid by the VA for all of this work. However, the intent for that funding is not to do the work, but for “professional development,” like going to conferences and other stuff.

Q. How many people in the Center for Service in Action actually does VA related work?

A. Just me and my boss. Her position isn’t funded to do the work, but she’s well versed in it because she actually used to hold the position I am in now. But, she hasn’t actually worked on VA files in the last two years, or so. She’s caught up on some of the newer procedures, like the Post-9/11 GI Bill, but she doesn’t do any of the applications and filing [certifications to the VA]. When I’m not available, she can do some of the advising, but I generally have more of the answers for the VA students.

Q. How have the cuts affected the rest of the non-veterans related personnel in the office? Have there been cuts in positions, increased workloads, and longer hours to complete a day’s work?

A. I haven’t experienced an increase in work because of the cuts, but because of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which includes more work than before. My work takes a little bit more time to track and file, and because there are only two in the department working to help veterans, it’s hard to make a cut there as opposed to other places. In the department, most of the “layoffs” are not real layoffs, but just a decision that those positions vacated by transfers will not be refilled. So, those old positions won’t open up, and there won’t be new hires. That has actually happened a lot in our department, and we have a lot of empty positions. Some people now have a staff of two people, instead of the usual four.

Q. Have the UC budget cuts affected any of your VA students? Are there any specific ways a veteran student might be impacted differently than a regular student not receiving VA educational benefits?

A. Yes, and no. In terms of the UC budget, there was never any money for the veterans specifically. There are some conferences this year that Student Veterans of America put on. This would be their third year, and our students have gone each of the last two years on funding provided by the Student Affairs. Usually, Student Affairs splits the cost with our department to send the students to the conference. This year, we won’t be able to help fund interested students for conferences and travel.

Q. In August, there was a delay for veterans receiving Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits because of terminology differences between the VA and UC. Was the holdup due to the VA, or UC, and what was the issue?

A. Both. The part that the VA caused… we couldn’t submit paperwork [GI Bill certifications] because we had to put ‘tuition and fees’ as part of the electronic submission. If the UC fees [for ‘09-’10] were not finalized, we would not be allowed, by the VA, to put in approximate fees. The proposed budget was not a finalized fee, and could potentially change. The VA wanted to know the actual fees charged, and since they weren’t finalized, we couldn’t put them in.

[Here, Adeli is referring to the state budget being passed in mid July. At the time, the VA was not accepting the UC’s bill because of terminology differences, and because the UC per-unit fee had not, at that time, been finalized.]

Q. How did these issues affect VA students? Did this delay your work and your ability to submit the new Post-9/11 GI Bill claims for your VA students?

A. It did back it up. My goal originally was to finish and submit the applications by July 6th. Since I was going on vacation on July 21st, my goal was to submit everything that had been turned in [GI Bill certifications] before I left. Because of everything, this obviously didn’t happen. When I came back two weeks later, it still hadn’t been finalized.

The holdup was in the terminology. Everywhere else [different states] uses ‘tuition and fees,’ but we use the term ‘education and fees.’ Because of that different distinction, the UC had to go back and change everything. They basically redid whatever legal stuff to change the terminology for the VA. When they were finally able to change the terminology, then they were able to finalize with the real numbers.

[Because of the budget impasse, Adeli was unable to submit the GI Bill certifications in July. Waiting for the UC to finalize per unit fees and fix terminologies meant that GI Bill certifications were not even submitted until September. Thus, the certifications for veterans in UC were parked at the end of the long, national backlog at the VA.]

At this time, Adeli went into great detail describing the process by which she submits the paperwork for every veteran’s Post-9/11 GI Bill certification. She talked about the two different online programs that she uses to connect with the VA, and the quarterly process for certifying student veterans’ classes so that they can receive their benefits and allowances on time.

Today, a majority of UCI’s veterans have not been paid, and might not see that money (and backpay) until December. With UCI granted deferments on tuition, many veterans are cutting classes, working overtime, and expanding their debt to make temporary ends meet. And though the overlying responsibility for delay rests squarely on the backs of senior officials at the Veterans Affairs, late summer squabbles in Sacramento played no small part in further delaying the benefits certification and submission process.

“That,” said Adeli, “is the domino effect from the state budget crisis.”

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