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County board tries to resolve rift with veterans

The message from the Douglas County commissioners to veterans attending the Jan. 16 county board meeting was loud and clear — the county wants to work with the veterans on the issue of volunteer drivers, they support veterans and they are not out to get them.

At a September board meeting, commissioners discontinued a $40 stipend for volunteers who drive veterans to their appointments at Veterans Affairs clinics in St. Cloud, Minneapolis and Fargo.

County Board Chairman Owen Miller, who slammed his gavel down at the Jan. 2, board meeting and asked a veteran who spoke out about the issue to sit down and be quiet, was the first person to address the issue.

"It's not our intention to put down our veterans," he said. "We are proud of them and want to support our veterans as we legally can. I apologize if they felt slighted."

Commissioner Jerry Rapp, who like Miller is a veteran, spoke to the roughly 10 veterans at the Jan. 16 meeting, letting them know that sometimes, the county gets caught in the middle of competing interests. He asked that everyone respect each other until the issues get resolved.

Commissioner Keith Englund said, "You're worried about the stipend, but $40 is not much. The real issue is the liability of the drivers."

If a volunteer driver gets in an accident, it's unclear who would be liable, the driver or the county, since volunteers are not county employees.

Englund said once everything is figured out, he would be the first to make the motion to change the status of the drivers from volunteer to part-time employees, which would address the liability issue and also compensate drivers who, at times, are gone all day. Drivers do get reimbursed for their meals.

Commissioner Charlie Meyer, addressing the veterans, said, "We are on your side. ... Nobody is here to pick on the veterans."

Meyer said a volunteer driver got into an accident elsewhere in Minnesota. It was a big issue for that county, he said, adding that he doesn't want that to happen in Douglas County.

There was some discussion about moving the Veterans Services office from the lower level of the services center building, with access from Fillmore Street, into the Douglas County Social Services office, which is in the same building but accessed from Elm Street.

Ken Voigt, one of the veterans at the meeting, told commissioners that with everything going on, there just seemed to be a perception among his peers that veterans are being punished and are not being treated fairly.

The veterans said they didn't like the idea of being paired up with social services because their issues are not social services issues.

Miller explained that social services are no longer "welfare services" and that social services helps all aspects of the community. The reason behind the move is to provide veterans with a higher level of service and efficiency, Miller said.

Miller also said the county will revisit the issue of moving the Veterans Services office.

Grant Haugen, another veteran in attendance, said the veterans will wait until the issues can be resolved and told the commissioners, "We don't like conflict any more than you do."

Celeste Edenloff

Celeste is a reporter for the Alexandria Echo Press and has lived in the Alexandria Lakes Area since 1997. She first worked for the Echo Press as a reporter from 1999 to 2011, and returned in June 2016 to report on the community she calls home. Besides writing articles for the Echo Press, she has a blog, “Newspaper Girl on the Run.” Celeste is on a continuous healthy living journey and loves to teach bootcamp fitness classes and run. She has participated in more than 200 races with her husband, Al, covering the 5K, 10K, 10-mile and half-marathon (13.1 mile) distances.

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