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Veterans seek answers on complicated driver issue

Area veterans gathered outside the Douglas County Commissioners meeting room Tuesday waiting to talk with the commissioners. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

As Douglas County Commissioners sat in a closed-door session Tuesday afternoon to discuss the county's labor negotiations, a group of veterans — nearly 50 people from all branches of the military — stood in the small area outside the meeting room and down the long hallway waiting for their issue to be heard.

The group waited for nearly 30 minutes before they were ushered inside to discuss topics including the volunteer driver program and the location of the Veterans Service Office.

Because it was deemed a work session, no board action was taken. However, the veterans were informed of two actions that were taken earlier that morning — the commissioners approved taking a look at hiring part-time drivers and it approved looking at forming a partnership with Executive Express, a shuttle service that could provide rides for veterans to their medical appointments in St. Cloud. (See related story.)

Paul Anderson, a former county commissioner and a World War II veteran, questioned the board's decision to form a partnership with Executive Express because of the cost. He said the cost for the shuttle service would be $67, but the county was only paying $40 for the volunteer drivers.

As of Jan. 1, the county discontinued the $40 stipend for its volunteers who drove veterans to their appointments at Veterans Affairs clinics in St. Cloud, Minneapolis and Fargo.

Commissioner Jerry Rapp said the commissioners are not wanting to give up on the volunteer drivers and that they are working toward a solution.

"We are not trying to eliminate the volunteers," Rapp said.

Veteran Grant Haugen who has been at the helm of the trying to work with the commissioners on the veterans issues, said the county is caught between a rock and a hard place, then quickly added, "I'm defending the county and I don't know why."

But Haugen said that because of discrepancies in rules with both the Department of Labor and the Internal Revenue Service, it is unclear on whether or not volunteers can receive any type of payment. He said according to the IRS, volunteers shouldn't receive payment, but the Department of Labor allows volunteers to receive a nominal fee.

"It comes down to a discrepancy between the IRS and the Department of Labor," said Haugen.

He told the commissioners, though, that he does like the idea of hiring drivers as part-time employees.

Veteran Mike Baudrau asked the commissioners why they felt they had to fix something that wasn't broken and said that veterans don't want more than they deserve. He said the commissioners were making things more complicated than they had to be.

Commissioner Jim Stratton said the county would avoid liability issues by using county employees to drive county-owned vehicles instead of volunteer drivers.

"Who knows what the right way is to handle this," said Stratton. "If we hire part-time people, then great. But if you want to volunteer, that's great, too."

Other issues

Several other veterans addressed other issues, some of which the county responded to:

• Would Executive Express, the shuttle service being looked at by the county, be able to handle veterans in wheelchairs? The answer was that apparently the shuttle can only handle foldable-type wheelchairs.

• Would the Veterans Service Office move? While moving closer to Social Services offices has been discussed, the veterans prefer the current location and were told it would not move.

• Removing the Veterans Service Office from under the Social Services Office umbrella to its own department with the VSO officer reporting directly to the county board instead of the Social Services director.The board took this under advisement and may make a decision at the next county board meeting.

• Why was Josh Brummond, the VSO officer, kept in the dark about hiring the assistant VSO officer? And why was he let go? Board Chairman Owen Miller said those were personnel issues and they couldn't discuss them. An assistant, Rhonda Fuchs, was hired earlier this month. At a meeting last Friday, the commissioners approved a separation agreement with Brummond but offered no further comment.

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. Besides writing articles for the Echo Press, she has a blog, “Newspaper Girl on the Run.” Celeste is on a continuous healthy living journey and loves to teach bootcamp fitness classes and run. She has participated in more than 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon (13.1 mile) distances.

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