Veterans Trust Fund sketchy in outcomes
The state’s Veterans Trust Fund has no clearly defined goals for the money it doles out, and it can’t demonstrate any positive impacts it has had since being created in 2000, according to a state audit of the program.
The audit, presented to the Legislative Audit Committee last week, showed that much of the $7 million grant money awarded since the program began “lacked detailed and accurate” descriptions of the services provided.
The grant program, administered by the Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, was created by the Legislature in 2000 from tobacco settlement funds to aid veterans’ nursing homes, veterans’ organizations and veterans’ cemeteries, including the Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.
While the audit comes on the heels of a federal scandal over wait times at VA hospitals nationwide, this is a separate issue.
Still, lawmakers were concerned that the audit doesn’t help the public’s perception of how the government cares for its veterans.
“As an Army veteran of Afghanistan and Bosnia, I am profoundly disappointed in this audit,” said Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial. “To simply say that the department is doing a better job than they did when it was initially transferred is not good enough. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of controversy at the federal level with the VA. Here in Colorado, we should make it our obligation, our duty to absolutely be above reproach. You can’t read this audit and come away with that conclusion.”
The grant fund gets up to $1 million a year, some of which goes to specific veterans service groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion to operate grassroots programs to benefit veterans in their areas.
The audit showed that while those groups are getting the needed funds, the department couldn’t account for how effective those programs have been, nor has it targeted the money to address the most pressing needs.
William Robinson, chairman of the Colorado Board of Veterans Affairs, said there’s a good reason for that.
Those pressing needs aren’t universal across the state.
“When we attempt to set state priorities, sometimes the locals say homelessness is important,” he said. “It’s very important in Denver and Colorado Springs. Not so much in Grand Junction. It’s not important in Burlington. It’s not important in Sterling.
“By mandating from Denver the priorities, that says to the locals, ‘Wait, are you telling me that because I’m not asking for money for homelessness that I can’t compete?’ So, we have been reluctant to mandate priorities.”
Robinson said the program was created at the behest of smaller veterans service organizations in such places as Grand Junction, Durango and Sterling. If homelessness becomes the main priority for grant funds, for example, there won’t be any left for them because the need there is so great, and funds would all be taken by Front Range programs, he said.
Still, the department agreed with the audit’s findings and said it would find a way to implement them so as not to freeze small-town groups from future funds.