SIERRA VISTA — While all state agencies are seeing budget cuts, the Arizona Department of Veterans Services has been fortunate that the reductions haven’t been too deep, said the agency’s director said.
However, Strickland told more than three dozen people who attended Saturday’s monthly meeting of the Greater Sierra Vista United Veterans Council he foresees a potential of another $500,000 reduction next year.
“I’m a little worried about 2010,” Strickland admitted.
Arizona had to address the $1.6 billion deficit in this year’s budget and will have as much, if not more to cut next year.
By working with the legislators, Strickland said he has been able to do surgical cuts instead of taking an ax to his department’s budget and ensured the counselor positions were not cut.
Attending the meeting was state Rep. Dave Gowan, R-District 30, who said the need to retain the counselors, who help bring federal dollars into Arizona to support veterans, was acknowledged by those in the Legislature as being important to the state’s economy.
Although the long-range plan was to have 60 counselors — 19 more than currently exist — Gowan said hiring them has to be delayed.
Strickland agrees, saying he is thankful the legislators did not reduce the 41 to 33.
Strickland noted that in one year the counselors have been responsible in finding $850 million in federal funds to help veterans living in Arizona, and that means the state doesn’t have to pick up the tab for some services that are really the responsibility of the U.S. government.
A retired Army colonel, who is a Republican and formerly headed a similar veteran agency in Louisiana, Strickland was hired by former Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano in mid-2008 and he, like some other of her appointments, is waiting to be confirmed by the state Senate.
Saying he was asked by Napolitano to be part of her administration as the Secretary of Homeland Security, Strickland said while the offer was enticing, “I really want to help veterans. That’s what I do best.”
Two years ago, the one state veterans home was under attack by the federal government for a variety of problems in not providing the best care and facilities.
Saturday, Strickland said the state’s veterans home has passed its current inspection for the first time in two years.
There is a lot of work to be done for veterans throughout the state, he said.
Last week, there was a “homeless stand-down day” in Phoenix, which is designed to identify veterans needing help, and 503 came forward seeking assistance, Strickland said.
Republican Gov. Jan Brewer was at the event, and she and he were amazed by the number of homeless veterans just in the Phoenix area.
It is estimated that there are 3,000 homeless veterans in Maricopa County alone. The total number in the state is unknown. There are 600,000 known veterans who live in the state.
Just recently in the Sierra Vista area, a count of unsheltered homeless individuals was taken, and eight of the 38 counted were determined to be veterans.
“Even one homeless veteran is one too many,” Strickland said.
And, there is a growing number of women veterans, many of whom have children, that are homeless, he added.
Receiving a special grant of $745,000, Strickland said the state’s veterans department is setting aside $265,000 of that to house homeless women veterans, noting a 16-unit apartment complex has been identified as a potential site for the project.
“We’ve got to reach out to women veterans,” he said.
When it comes to today’s veterans, “it’s a different ballgame,” Strickland said.
In April, the department is hosting an “all women’s veterans conference,” he said.
In another veteran arena, the department director said the state-operated cemetery in Sierra Vista is an excellent example of how such a facility should be developed and managed.
Future plans are for one in Yuma and another in Flagstaff, as well as other areas in the state, he said.
That he is a veteran himself — Strickland served two combat tours in Vietnam — and his two sons are currently in the Army — it is evident he is proud of his military ties.
And, there seems to be a need for him to reconnect with those roots every so often.
Friday night, Strickland attended the annual Installation Awards Banquet, noting that as an “old cavalry soldier, it’s always good to get ‘re-greened’ once in awhile.”