CUYAHOGA COUNTY -- It's the job of the Cuyahoga County Veterans Service Commission to assist veterans in need.
For the past few years, it's been returning nearly $1 million to the county, much to the surprise and anger of the county council and its president, C. Ellen Connally.
"I don't think they're doing a good job of identifying veterans who need the money," said Connally.
Bill Serafin, 24, of Euclid returned home from Iraq and needed all kinds of help trying to find a job and a place to live. "There were times money is so tight that it's like, I realized I've got $20 to last me the entire week and I've got to eat and put gas in my car," Serafin told The Investigator Tom Meyer.
The Iraq war veteran said he never heard of the commission, whose offices are located at 1849 Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. He thinks its absolutely inexcusable that the commission returns unused tax dollars because it claims it can't find veterans in need.
"Go into any bar and I guarantee you that you can find veterans that need something, " Serafin said.
As wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, veterans need help now more than ever.
"There is something wrong with an agency that you have a million dollars you can't give away, with all the needs in our community, especially with veterans," Connally said.
More than 14 percent of the county's homeless served in the military.
Robert Schloendorn, the commission's executive director, thinks it's horrible they can't find enough qualified veterans.
"We are trying to find them as best we can," said Schloendorn, who also admits the commission could be more aggressive in locating eligible veterans.
Schloendorn says the $1 million in unused tax dollars for veterans has been reduced this year to about $500,000.
David Greenspan, a District 1 county councilman, is appalled at how the commission is spending tax dollars. "Nearly 60 percent of their money goes to overhead, whether it's salaries, whether it's rent, whether it's staff development," Greenspan said..
Schloendorn proudly points out that the commission hands out 46 percent of its budget to veterans for financial assistance.
The commission spends $490,000 a year on office rent. Connally questions the expenditure. "We have empty county buildings all over the place. Why are we paying this kind of rent," asked Connally.
"No one has ever offered us a free space," Schloendorn said.
Schloendorn is one of the highest paid county administrators, hauling in $132,00 a year. He insists his salary is in line with others who hold similar positions.
The commissions employs 29 full-time individuals and eight part-time workers. Commission employees have received pay raises, longevity pay, and tuition reimbursements at a time when county employees have been laid off, forced to take furloughs, or had their pay cut.
Don Wiese of Fairview Park went to the commission for help when he was unable to pay his mortgage.
"I was a veteran and I needed their help," Wiese said. He was shocked when his plea for help was rejected. "I have a federal pension so they turned me down, " said Wiese.
Wiese thinks the commission should at least lighten its standards for providing financial assistance. "I felt they threw me in the ditch or under the bus," Wiese said.
Then, there are the flags. The county must provide them for veterans each Memorial Day. The commission refuses to agree to any plan that would allow for their secondary use. County Councilman Jack Schron is a 28-year Army veteran. "I can't think of a higher calling than to have a grave flag used for another valid purpose," said Schron.
Common Pleas court judges, headed by presiding Judge Nancy Fuerst, appoint commission members based on recommendations from service organizations. When Schloendorn was asked if anyone, including the judges, examines their budget and questions it, he said "no."
"It has no oversight," said Connally.
County Council intends to reach out to Ohio lawmakers to see if controls can be implemented over the commission to insure they spend all allotted money on needy veterans.