Riverside County’s 132,228 veterans are receiving full-court-press attention from Riverside County Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez to improve services for those who need them.

And, it’s not just the veteran. His attention — and that of his colleagues — is on enhancing services for veterans’ next of kin, significant others, and domestic partners of veterans that need access to veterans’ records. Access is critical, especially when they’re seeking to help a veteran access his or her benefits, or at the most difficult time for a loved one — burial at a veteran’s cemetery.

'Veterans Have Earned Their Benefits'

(Photo courtesy of V. Manuel Perez)

In December, Perez and Third District Supervisor Chuck Washington co-authored and introduced the Veterans Improvement Program of Riverside County. It passed unanimously.

Chuck Washington

Chuck Washington

“Veterans have earned their benefits and our respect and gratitude,” Perez said.

The program creates a formal internship program, both paid and voluntary, for veterans of any era that are in college and need to complete an internship on a professional level. Internships can be in any one of the county’s 40-plus departments.

“It is really a great way to take advantage of the leadership skills and the knowledge that veterans have already demonstrated by their service to the country,” Thomas S. Freeman, Perez’s chief of public policy, told Uken Report. “The supervisor’s intent is to bring more of Riverside County’s roughly 132,000 veterans on to the county team.”

Riverside County has the third highest veteran population in the state and is the host of two major military installations; various National Guard facilities and installations; and state and federal reserve facilities and installations.

Disabled Veteran Gains Employment

Disabled Veteran Gains Employment

The program would also breathe new life into the county’s longstanding Veteran Employment Preference Program, created in 1975, which has not been functioning as intended. The revitalized program will promote and encourage the practice of interviewing veterans for the county’s 20,000 jobs. Specific language for the program is under review.

Supervisors are also asking that the state increase funding for the Veteran Service Officers program. Money for the program is shared among California’s 58 counties. Current funding is set at $5.6 million, with full funding close to $11 million annually. Following the Great Recession in 2008 funding dropped below $3 million annually, according to Perez.

Restoration of full funding would enable to the county to bring on more Veteran Service Officers, veterans helping veterans, gain access to their benefits.

“Supervisor Perez has been concerned that we don’t have enough staff,” Freeman said. “For instance, down in the desert, there are two veteran service officers to service 29,522 veterans. That’s roughly one person each for 14,000-plus veterans. That’s a little bit too much work.”

During the past three years, Riverside County Veteran Service Officers generated $99 million in new benefit payments for disabled veterans, or an average of $33 million annually, ranking Riverside County second in utilization of benefits in the state, according to Perez.

Supervisors are also asking that electronic access to federal and state military records be restored. Records access was eliminated following a hacking/electronic security breach, according to Perez.  The county is looking to work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to restore access.

“Having access to electronic records will speed up access to benefits,” Freeman said.

Finally, Perez said, to enhance supervisors’ understanding of the needs of the county’s veterans, a comprehensive but rapidly completed study of resident veterans is essential.

“Working with the Community Translational Research Institute (CTRI) and taking advantage of their researchers and world-renowned staff is one way to produce a comprehensive study that is of great benefit to our county and veterans in forecasting their current and future needs across a wide range of areas,” Perez said.

Areas of study included would be veterans’ health, housing, homelessness, education, vocational training, mental health and employment needs. Cost of the study would not exceed $25,000 and is described as a “world-class look at veterans’ needs.”

Created in 2014 as a not-for-profit corporation, the founding CTRI partners include leaders of the Claremont Graduate University School of Community and Global Health, the County of Riverside, and the Inland Empire Health Plan.

Perez, who has a heart for veterans and served as vice chair of the Committee on Veterans Affairs in the state Assembly, also asked each city, via a letter, to join him in supporting these issues so there is a comprehensive, united approach to helping veterans and their families.

Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Perez to the District 4 seat, which covers the Coachella Valley, until the November 2018 election. He was appointed to fill the seat left vacant in the wake of Supervisor John Benoit’s death in December 2016.

Perez is being challenged by Jan Harnik, a Republican and a member of the Palm Desert City Council.