Veterans slam Fulton County supervisors for sacking agency chief – The Daily Gazette

JOHNSTOWN – The Fulton County Board of Supervisors heard from veterans unhappy with the board’s decision not to re-elect Dan Engel as director of the county’s Veterans Services Agency on Monday.

Stephen “Mike” Ferjanek, a US Marine Corps veteran. and a resident of the city of Ephratah spoke first during the council’s public comment period. He asked everyone in the room who had served in the United States Army to raise their hands.

“I don’t see any hand raising,” Ferjanek said. “So this tells me that you don’t understand the [U.S. Veterans Administration] system, or be in the military. I was in the military for 20 years, six months, 22 days to the day. I’m a very demanding US Marine, but as veterans of any branch (of the military) we are all equal, we work together.

The board voted 14-3 against reappointing Engel as full-time director at $ 53,447 at the board’s organizational meeting on Jan. 3. It was a rare party line vote with only the three Democrats on the board, 1st Gloversville Ward Supervisor Marie Born, 2nd Ward Supervisor Frank Lauria and 5th Ward Supervisor Greg Young voting in favor. of maintaining Engel. All the Republican supervisors present voted against him.

Mario Cristaldi, the commanding officer of American Legion post 337 in Broadalbin, lambasted the board for not supporting Engel. He said he believed the board’s vote not to support Engel was “political” and “personal”.

“You have no idea what you have created, neither of you are doing it,” Cristaldi said. “You have created a mess. We have veterans who are going to need help, and there is no plan in place. What are you going to do now? Push the work on to other people who are going to be even more overworked? Leaving things even more troubled for our veterans. “

Cristaldi said he was ashamed of the board’s actions and believed there would be a political price to be paid for leaving veterans with pending benefit claims started under Engel in the mess.

“We as veterans are not going to forget that,” he said. “This is something that we are not going to forget, because as vets it’s something that we take personally, and there are almost 4,000 vets (in Fulton County) , and we will remember you in the next election. “

No official reason was given by supervisors as to why Engel was not reappointed. Some supervisors have criticized them for believing that Engel didn’t always spend the same amount of time helping every veteran apply for benefits.

Ferjanek said Engel had been of great help to 3,711 Fulton County veterans and 506 Hamilton County veterans, but now the burden of helping local veterans benefit claims has been transferred to Montgomery County, which has its own 4,217 veterans to take care of. He told the board that they made a mistake in not renaming Engel because he had a great idea of ​​how to navigate the VA benefit system to help veterans with their benefit claims, which in turn has helped generate at least several million dollars in additional federal spending for the VA. Fulton County from 2019-21.

“I would like to know why he was dismissed from his post for ‘this incident’,” Ferjanek said. “I know I might not have the answer here today… I don’t know if we can get him back, or if you even think about it, but I have an obligation to stand up for what I believe in. as a United States Navy, and I stand tall when I speak like that.

“Thank you for your service,” said Fulton County Board of Directors Chairman Greg Fagan.

“You’re welcome,” Ferjanek replied.

The “incident” Ferjanek referred to happened when Engel left his cell phone in the supervisory board’s office during a closed-door executive board session in June. Engel said the incident led to increased friction between him and Fulton County Administrator Jon Stead.

Engel said he accidentally left the phone in the meeting room and was subsequently proven not to try to register supervisors.

After the board meeting, Fagan said he couldn’t explain why he and the majority of the board didn’t vote for Engel’s reappointment because the matter was “complicated …” . and a lot of it is personal type stuff that I’m not free to talk about, ”but he touched on the cell phone controversy. Fagan said Engel’s cell phone was never confiscated by the county.

“[The phone] was not confiscated. It was left in that office, in the bedrooms, during an executive session, ”Fagan said. “It died out [from being called). We took it in the office. He called Johnstown Police.”

Engel has also argued that one of the reasons he was not reappointed was that he was advocating for the Veterans Service Agency to be moved out of the basement of the county’s 223 W. Main St. building. Engel argued that the current location of the agency is a cramped office space that lacks the room to be compliant with the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act when veterans need to speak freely about their health problems. He also questioned the handicap accessibility of the office and said it should be moved to the Route 29 Fulton County Services Complex, into the office space being vacated by the Fulton County Emergency Management office, which is moving into the former Johnstown Area Volunteer Ambulance Corps. building on North Perry Street in Johnstown.

Fagan said the issue of whether or not the Veterans Service Agency will be moved to the Route 29 Fulton County Services Complex is still ongoing.

“There is a space, but I don’t think it’s empty yet — I don’t know that Emergency Management has totally moved out yet,” Fagan said. “We’re looking at that, but there’s also some other space over there at the complex that would work. We would like, hopefully, to get a place where, if the staff in (the Veterans Service Agency) isn’t in, there’s at least another desk with a secretary [located nearby] so (veterans seeking help) could stop and leave a message. “

Fagan said he thought the board was keen on trying to keep the county director of the Veterans Services Agency in a full-time position, which he became in 2019 on demand. from Engel.

“But that can change, depending on who comes in,” Fagan said.

Fagan has said he would like the position to be filled as soon as possible, but there aren’t many qualified people to do it.

“We will be posting the job, but the criteria are quite narrow. You must be a [veteran] who served during “open conflict” which really eliminates a lot of the potential (candidates) that we get, “he said. “Once the applications are received, we will start the interviews. “

Fagan has said he would like to have a new director for the Veterans Services Agency who is an accredited veterans services officer, a certification Engel obtained during his tenure.

“We’re also looking at what it would take for someone else in this office to be accredited to be a VSO,” he said. “(VSO) are the ones who rank and represent the vets to the VA, and Engel had it. We’ve found a few, just since last week, because we’ve reached out to other counties to make sure veterans are taken care of, and we’ve looked at what it takes to be accredited as a VSO. But you can be the veterans (director of the service agency) and not necessarily be a VSO. We would love to have both, if we can find someone who has both that would be great, but I don’t think we’re going to figure that out just yet.

After not being reappointed, Engel indicated last week that he would likely still help some of the veterans’ benefit claims that were pending when the board chose not to renew it.

Fagan said Monday that Fulton County is helping direct veterans with pending benefit claims to get help from Montgomery County and New York State. He said it might be true that Engel would continue to help some of the veterans who were furthest along in the claims process, and “if he does, more power for him,” but the Fulton County will likely not pay any compensation for him. do it.

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