EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 5, 2013

Lantigua seeks hike in spending for veterans

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE – A sudden surge in the number of sick or impoverished veterans seeking help will push spending for their services 60 percent beyond the $590,000 budgeted this fiscal year, Budget Director Mark Ianello said in a request for the added funding the City Council will receive tonight.

The increase, combined with the $70,583 salary earned by the director of the city’s Department of Veterans Services – the department’s sole employee - will push city spending for veterans this year to just over $1 million.

Ianello said the added $354,000 is needed to provide income suppliments and medical assistance to a monthly caseload of veterans that has increased from 70 to 120 over the last year.

Mayor William Lantigua cited the increase in his State of the City address on Feb. 5, when he also credited more aggressive outreach by Jaime Melendez. Lantigua named Melendez to oversee veterans services in October 2011. He replaced Francisco Urena, who left to take a similar post in Boston.

Melendez has not responded to requests over the last month for more specific data about his increased caseload, except to say in an e-mail that he has “about doubled my clients this last year alone.”

Numbers provided by the state Department of Veterans’ Services show a substantial jump in the number of veterans’ Lawrence served in 2012 compared to 2011, but the increase is less than Lantigua and Melendez are reporting.

The state records show Lawrence provided financial and medical aid to a monthly average of 81 veterans in 2011, compared to 101 last year, a 25-percent increase rather than the 100 percent Melendez and Lantigua have cited.

Melendez did not return a phone call yesterday. Lantigua could not be reached.

The $590,000 the city budgeted for veterans’ assistance for the fiscal year that ends June 30 ran out last month, Ianello reported.

The $354,190 needed to make it to the end of the fiscal year would be drawn from the $6.6 budget surplus the city accumulated last year, which would be reduced to $4.6 million if the council approves the new money for veterans and Lantigua’s other requests to tap into the surplus for other purposes.

The state reimburses localities for 75 percent of what they spend providing financial and medical assistance to veterans.

Daniel Rivera, the chairman of the City Council’s budget committee and a veteran of the first Gulf War in 1991, said he would support the new spending.

“With the new influx of veterans from the most current wars, on top of the debt we owe to our past veterans, I think it’s money we’re obligated to provide,” Rivera said.