The $40 a day stipend for volunteer drivers for the Veteran Service Office in Douglas County was terminated by Douglas County commissioners at a board meeting in September, which upset the drivers and veterans who use the service.
Since then, those drivers and veterans have been trying to figure out why the county no longer wants to pay for the volunteer drivers and are trying to rectify the situation.
According to Josh Brummond, the Douglas County Veterans Service officer, volunteers take about 100 trips per year with veterans for their appointments. Prior to that September meeting, there were five volunteer drivers. As of now, however, there are two. Brummond said one quit in September and two quit last month.
In 2017, the county spent $2,760 for the driver program for the veterans.
Douglas County Commissioner Owen Miller, who provided a written statement to the newspaper, said a retirement in the Veteran Service Office prompted the commissioners to review policies and procedures regarding volunteer drivers for veterans.
Miller, who is a veteran and served in the Army National Guard, said in his statement that Douglas County veterans continue to be served by the Max J. Beilke Outreach Clinic in Alexandria, but when necessary, they are given rides to veterans clinics in St. Cloud, Minneapolis and Fargo by volunteer drivers using the Douglas County Veterans van.
"These volunteers are either veterans helping veterans or other county residents wanting to support veterans," said Miller in his statement. "Each volunteer is reimbursed for meals on the day they drive the van."
Veterans speak out
Grant Haugen, a member of the Veterans Council, which meets monthly at the Douglas County Veterans Service Office, spoke on behalf of the veterans group.
He said that after hearing complaints from a number of veterans and drivers about the discontinued stipend, he went to a county board work session in December and asked commissioners to continue the stipend for the volunteer drivers.
At that time, he said, veterans started calling county administrators and county veteran offices around the state to find out how others handled transporting veterans.
"There are 87 counties and there are 87 different ways," said Haugen, adding that McLeod County, which had the same issue, did a study on it and now pay part-time employees to drive their vans.
"We're all just frustrated about the whole thing," said Haugen. "We're frustrated because of the conflicting information we are receiving. We're just trying to get answers."
Haugen said he was told by one of the commissioners, whom he did not name, that the commissioners were just looking out for the county and were getting rid of non-mandated programs. He was told that the volunteer drivers were not mandated and that is why the county discontinued the stipend.
"If that's the case, why give yourselves a raise from $75 to $100?" Haugen said, questioning the commissioner's decision to increase their own per diem rates for days that they attend meetings. "Why take away from the drivers?"
Haugen and others frustrated by this issue have been in contact with the Minnesota Department of Labor, the Minnesota Counties Intergovernmental Trust and several others to try and get answers.
Haugen, in a packet of information provided to the newspaper, said, "We, as veterans, are seeking the continued support of the County Board and would like to encourage the County Board to continue the program through a process of part-time employees for the county, who would provide transportation for veterans."
By having part-time employees, Haugen said it would address the Fair Labor Standards Act, address the liability of drivers and compensate drivers who may be gone the entire day.
Commissioner Jim Stratton, board chairman when the stipend was dropped, assigned Miller and commissioner Jerry Rapp, both veterans, to work on the issue. He also said besides the stipend, there is also the issue of insurance and who would be responsible if the drivers were to get involved in an accident.
"It's about liability and insurance with the potential of litigation," Stratton said.
Stratton said this is an ongoing issue and that he knows it is not yet resolved.
"We haven't shut the door on the vets," said Stratton in a phone conversation. "We are working on it, but sometimes it takes time to come up with an amicable solution for all parties involved."