By Mac Cerullo
---- — AMESBURY – City officials have engaged in preliminary discussions about the possibility of merging Amesbury’s Veterans’ Services department with those in Newburyport, Newbury, Merrimac and Salisbury to create a new regionalized service that would serve veterans living in all five communities.
Amesbury has been without a full-time Veterans’ Services Director since Kristen Lucier stepped down in February to take a new position with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Newburyport director Kevin Hunt has been serving as interim director in the meantime, and it is expected he will become the director for the whole region if the change is made official.
Mayor Thatcher Kezer confirmed that the five communities are working to formulate a regional veterans district, but added that there are still issues with the state that have to be worked out before anything is finalized.
Salisbury Town Manager Neil Harrington said the hold up is a quirk in the law that allows only one city at a time to be included in such a grouping, according to a memo sent to the Salisbury Board of Selectmen.
“We are looking at having all five communities file a home rule petition to allow us to join together and pool our resources and continue to provide first rate services to our veterans at a more economical cost,” Harrington said, adding that he would be proposing a warrant article to this effect at Town Meeting.
If Hunt were tabbed as the regional director, his day-to-day responsibilities likely wouldn’t change very much. Hunt already services the veterans in Merrimac and Newbury, and by picking up Amesbury he has found his workload increase substantially in recent months.
“It has been hectic, the first couple of weeks you have two full time positions that for a short time we are going to have operate out of both offices, Amesbury and Newburyport, but I’m finding that I’ve got a handle on it and we’re getting all of the priorities handled,” Hunt said. “I don’t believe anyone is waiting any longer than they normally would have for callbacks and things like that.”
Kezer and Hunt both indicated that if the change is made, a second full-time staff member would be hired to help cover the five communities, and a team of assistants would be brought on to support them.
“It will benefit all of the veterans in the area in a better way because it means we’ll be able to hire an additional person and that would give better contact to the veterans, they’ll have more personal time with people than they may have had in the past,” Hunt said. “That’s the goal, to make the services better. It also could be more economical for some of the communities involved.”
Salisbury has also entered into preliminary discussions regarding regionalizing veterans services, according to Town Manager Neil Harrington.
“There is an option under the law to set up regional veterans services collaboratives, but due to a quirk in the law, only one city at a time can be included in such a grouping,” Harrington told selectmen at their recent meeting. “We are looking at having all five communities file a home rule petition to allow us to join together to pool our resources and continue to provide first rate services to our veterans at a more economical cost.
Harrington plans to offer Town Meeting the option of approving such a home rule petition, he said.
Currently, Salisbury only has a part time person helping veterans. If approved, the collaborative would be able to offer veterans a full time director, as well.
Hunt added that veterans living in Newburyport, Merrimac and Newbury likely wouldn’t see much of a change in service under those conditions, and if anything their services would increase.
Hunt, who is himself a Vietnam veteran who served in the U.S. Navy from 1965-70, has served as Newburyport’s Veterans’ Services director since September of 2007, and his office helps veterans file claims, obtain benefits, enroll in health care and work through any number of the physical, mental and emotional issues that veterans can face.
Primarily, Hunt’s job is to work with people, and at this stage in his career he has just about seen and heard it all, he said.
“Today we had a veteran who didn’t have a lot of money,” Hunt said. “He died, and he didn’t have any money to pay for his own funeral, so the state will help out when there’s a veteran, and we’ll probably give him his place of honor in right here in the veterans cemetery in Newburyport.”
As of now, there is no official timetable regarding the regionalization of Veterans Services. Hunt said the communities are still in a fact gathering stage and there are no official votes currently scheduled.