County VA office to close, could be replaced by volunteer office

Published 4:56 pm Thursday, May 31, 2012

Chilton County’s Veterans Affairs office will close soon, but local American Legion officials are working to open up their own volunteer-based office.

Without a local office to help veterans file entitlement claims, they would have to travel to surrounding counties for help.

The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs announced Chilton’s office would be among 17 to close on Friday.

“The decision to close county offices that directly assist our veterans is not one taken lightly,” Clyde Marsh, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs, said in a release. “Unfortunately, the current and projected shortfall in the department’s General Fund budget is preventing the ADVA from hiring veterans service officers that would allow us to keep the offices open.”

Chilton County’s VA agent position was eliminated in March. A representative from the Shelby County office staffed Chilton County’s office one day a week in the absence of a full-time agent for the county.

But the Chilton County office will close permanently on June 1.

“It’s going to be a terrible inconvenience,” said Phil Burnette, commander of the 23rd District, American Legion Department of Alabama. “We have veterans who are just unable to travel. They have health problems, or just financially it’s not possible for them to do it.”

Burnette said Thorsby’s American Legion Post 206 and its commander, Mike Welborn, will host a meeting at 7 p.m. on June 21 at Helen Jenkins Chapel to discuss the closing of the county VA office. State Sen. Cam Ward and Rep. Kurt Wallace could be present to discuss the situation.

The meeting could also include an update on plans to open a volunteer-based veterans office, Burnette said.

“I’m hopeful to have the office ready to open or already operational by the time of that meeting,” Burnette said. “We should be able to do anything [the previous VA office] could do. We have at least two people that are certified by their organizations to help file claims and do follow-ups and appeals. The only difference will be it’s not a government office.”

Burnette said the most significant obstacle is finding a location for the office.

“They’ve left all of our veterans without any assistance,” he said. “I’ve had numerous calls already, people asking, ‘What do I do,’ or ‘What’s going on?'”

For more information on the planned office, call Burnette at (205) 287-4386.

Chilton County veterans wishing to talk with a VA agent should call or visit one of the following offices:

•Autauga County (Prattville): Office is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The telephone number is (334) 361-3742.

•Bibb County (Centreville): Office is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Telephone number is (205) 926-3116.

•Dallas County (Selma): Office is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Telephone number is (334) 874-2533.

•Shelby County (Columbiana): Office is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Telephone number is (205) 669-3835.

In 2012, the ADVA took a 15 percent cut in its General Fund appropriations, according to a release. Next year’s budget will reduce the department’s General Fund from $2.8 million to $1.8 million, another 34 percent reduction.

After the June 1 closures, the ADVA will have 50 veterans service offices serving Alabama’s 67 counties.

“This is the course we must take because of the severe fiscal constraints the state faces,” Marsh said. “We will always leave on the table the option to reopen the county VA offices if the department has the appropriate level of funding.”

The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs provides VA services to Alabama’s more than 420,000 veterans. These services range from disability compensation and pension benefits, education assistance, to long-term care through the department’s veterans home program.