Atmore VA office not closing

Published 9:39 am Wednesday, May 26, 2010

County commissioners are no longer in a tough spot when it comes to making a decision on which Veteran’s Administration service office to close — VA officials have made the decision for them.

Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Clyde Marsh made the announcement by way of letter last week to Escambia County Commission Chairman David Stokes.

“The decision has been made by ADV to suspend services in the Brewton office and provide veterans county office services in Atmore,” Marsh said in the letter. “The consolidation will occur as previously scheduled on June 24, 2010. It is in the best interest of our agency and veterans to implement our plan and not delay this initiative any longer.”

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Stokes said closing the office was neither the decision nor the desire of the commission.

“We did everything we knew to do to try and keep both offices open,” Stokes said. “The decision was not ours, but the decision has been made.”

Commissioner Brandon Smith had met with VA officials in recent weeks in an effort to work out plans that would keep both offices open — but that attempt was not successful.

“Obviously the best outcome would have been to keep both offices open for our veterans across the county,” Smith said. “That’s what we tried to do. Unfortunately with the economic downturn that we all have been faced with that was not an option for the state.”

Although veterans in the Brewton and surrounding areas may have to drive to find assistance from a veterans service office, Smith said Atmore’s office will be a comfortable space in which to conduct VA business.

“I am very pleased to have the office in Atmore,” Smith said. “If you look at both locations, the Atmore office proved to be the best location for handicap accessibility and the larger number of veterans to be served there as described in Commissioner Marsh’s letter.”

Commissioner Larry White said he had also hoped to see both offices in the county remain open. In an effort to encourage VA officials to leave both offices open White said commissioners had requested information used by VA officials in making the determination to close either office in Escambia County.

“We had requested information on how much money is to be saved in displacing veterans in this county,” he said. “That has not been forthcoming.”

The county commission, not the VA, pays for the facility and utilities for both offices.

White had invited concerned citizens, veterans and fellow commissioners to have their voices heard at the July 2 VA board meeting in Montgomery.

However, based on the information in Marsh’s letter to the commission, attending that meeting would not serve any purpose in an attempt to keep both offices open.

Marsh’s letter said the ADVA is concerned with providing services to Escambia County veterans as well as veterans in other counties.

“For clarification, veteran’s services are not being lost in Escambia County,” Marsh said. “Two offices are being consolidated into one and the same number of days will be provided in the Atmore office that was previously provided in both Brewton and Atmore. Additionally, this consolidation is not a pure budget issue, but is driven by proration, which was the result of a statewide underperforming economy. Proration mandates that all state agencies operate under various restrictions.”

Marsh said an assessment of services offered by the agency was made into which office would best serve the veterans in the county.

“Based on our agency’s assessment, the Atmore office is best suited to handle the veterans’ service requirements for Escambia County,” Marsh said. “It is a modern facility with larger office accommodations and room to expand. It is easily accessible to all veterans, but especially disabled veterans due to handicap or veteran friends/accessibility. Finally, Atmore has the largest county veteran population in closer proximity.”

Smith said the loss of an office location is not ideal, but keeping at least one office open with a service officer on hand is better than losing it all.

“We are very fortunate to have an office in Escambia County,” Smith said. “Some counties don’t have an officer or an office. We are lucky to have a representative like Mike Hanks and Rita Gatewood to serve our veterans.”

The Brewton office of Veterans Affairs is located in the Escambia County Courthouse annex building and will remain open through June 24. The Atmore VA office is located on the Satellite Courthouse complex on U.S. 31 just east of downtown.

Atmore VFW Commander Lee “Lavan” Martin addresses members of the county commission during a workshop recently in Brewton. | Photo by Lisa Tindell