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County to hire part-time drivers for vets

Veterans will soon be able to get to their doctor appointments at Veteran Affairs clinics in St. Cloud, Minneapolis and Fargo via county employees.

On Tuesday, March 6, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners approved the hiring of three part-time employees who would be responsible to drive veterans to and from their appointments. These part-time county positions will start at $13.82 per hour. In addition, they are not benefit-eligible positions, but hourly positions, according to Heather Schlanger, Douglas County coordinator/human resource director.

The county previously paid volunteer drivers a $40 stipend for driving veterans to and from their appointments, but as Jan. 1, that stipend was discontinued over concerns about liability and insurance. The commissioners and Douglas County veterans have been working together since then to come up with a solution.

After a question from someone in the audience about the cost difference of volunteer drivers versus paid employees and how it didn't seem prudent to taxpayers, Commissioner Jim Stratton said the county is in the business of service and something needed to be done.

"There are counties bending rules all over the place and it would be a slap in the you know what if something happened," Stratton said.

The driver issue wasn't the only veteran-related action taken Tuesday.

The commissioners approved leaving the Veterans Service Office in its current location, in the lower level of the Douglas County Services building, near the Douglas County Library.

There were previous discussions to move the office within the Social Services office, but after discussions with area veterans, the commissioners made the decision that the Veterans Service Office will stay put.

However, Commissioner Owen Miller, chairman of the county board, said the office would stay put "for now" and that it's best to "never say never."

Another issue voiced by area veterans was that they wanted the Veterans Service Office to be its own department and not under the umbrella of Douglas County Social Services. At one time, the office was a department on its own but was eventually moved under Social Services.

Social Services Director Laurie Bonds spoke about the move and told the nearly 10 veterans in attendance at Tuesday's meeting, "We would be happy to be done tomorrow. We didn't make this mess, we are just trying to pick up the pieces."

Commissioner Miller said the county is trying to provide the best service it can to its veterans and that Bonds and her employees are trying to do the best they can. He said Social Services has been actively involved with veterans, helping with not only the transportation issues, but other services as well.

The commissioners agreed that it boils down to customer service and wanting to provide the best service possible to veterans and if Social Services pulled out now, there would be a big gap in services.

The county is currently without a Veterans Service Office officer. It is seeking to replace Josh Brummond, whose contract the county didn't renew. The county recently filled an assistant officer position.

The commissioners agreed to discuss the issue of making the Veterans Service Office its own department, but not at this time.

Stratton made a motion that after one year from when the new Veterans Service Office officer is in place, the commissioners would revisit the issue of making the Veterans Service Office its own department.

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 nearly 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon (13.1 mile) distances.

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