Fulton County Veterans dept. moving to Route 29

PHOTOGRAPHER:

Exterior of the Fulton County Office Building North William Street entrance in Johnstown. Sept. 26, 2021.

The Fulton County Board of Supervisors has approved a new plan for its office space that will move the county’s Veterans Service Agency out of the basement at 223 W. Main St. in Johnstown and into a larger office at the Fulton County Services Complex on Route 29.

The new office space plan was created after the Fulton County Board of Supervisors in August agreed to buy the former Johnstown Area Volunteer Ambulance Corps. building at 231 N. Perry St. for $400,000 from its former owner, Townsend Leather Corp.

The Fulton County Emergency Management Office will move into the former ambulance corps building, freeing up space at the Route 29 “Complex II” building, according to Jon Stead, Fulton County administrator. The plan will enable two adjacent county departments — the County Information Technology Dept. and the Fulton County Board of Elections — to move into the office currently occupied by the EMO, he said.

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The Veterans Service Agency will then move into space next to the Highways and Facilities Dept. in the “Complex I” building, “where the printing department is now,” Stead said.

New wall partitions, entry doors and carpeting will be installed at the new Veterans Service Agency site, according to a plan developed by Mark Yost, superintendent of Fulton County Highways and Facilities. The total budget approved by supervisors for the department relocations is $7,000.

In 2021 when Yost was working on the plan, former Veterans Service Agency Director Dan Engel had advocated for his department to be moved out of the basement of the main county building at 223 W. Main St. Engel had argued the cramped veterans agency office space did not provide enough privacy for military veterans to discuss their health issues. He was also critical of its accessibility for the disabled.

“My office is not [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] compliant, and there’s no way for a veteran in a wheelchair to get out of that office if there’s a fire, without using the elevator, which isn’t supposed to be done,” Engel said in January. “When I bring these things to the board of supervisors I’m told ‘I’m sowing dissension around the ranks.'”

Engel wanted the agency moved to the Route 29 Complex II space being vacated by the county Emergency Management Office.

The Fulton County Board of Supervisors chose not to reappoint Engel at its organizational meeting in January. Several military veterans then complained at the board’s Jan. 10 meeting about the decision not to appoint Engel to another term, arguing that he had been an effective advocate for the county’s military veterans in their often lengthy and complex battles with the federal government to obtain veterans benefits. Several veterans also referenced Engel’s fight to get the office moved as a possible reason for why he wasn’t reappointed.

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Stead Wednesday acknowledged that one possible plan considered by Yost would have moved the Veterans Service Agency into the space being vacated by the Emergency Management Office, but he said that was only one of several options, including the plan the Board of Supervisors ultimately approved. He said he disagrees with Engel’s characterization of the office space as not being compliant with accessibility laws, but also said the new space on Route 29 will be at least double the square footage of the basement office and include a partitioned office for the new director to meet privately with veterans applying for federal benefits.

“The space where Veterans now is, in this building, even though they’ve been there for a number of years, that was always considered an interim move, and that eventually we would be looking for a different space,” Stead said.

Engel has said he believes that the Board of Supervisors decision not to reappoint him was motivated primarily by friction between himself and Stead, some of which he attributes to the office politics centered around how the different county departments would be relocating as part of the space use plan. Engel had also successfully lobbied the Board to expand his position from part-time to full-time.

In December Engel sent the Fulton County Board of Supervisors a report that included a chart from the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs showing that the total federal expenditure on veterans in Fulton County increased from $18.8 million in 2018 to $23.4 million in 2019 — a $4.5 million jump — in the first year Engel worked full-time.

Engel said his record is proof he should have been reappointed. He said he thinks its wrong the County Board of Supervisors never fully articulated a reason why he was not reappointed.

At the January county organizational meeting Caroga Supervisor Scott Horton said although Engel had done a good job advocating for some veterans there were some supervisors who were concerned that Engel was not always consistent in the speed with which he would help all of the veterans that came to his office.

Engel on Wednesday said he thinks that’s an unfair criticism.

“When you have no secretary for four months, you have to establish priorities of who’s going to get helped first,” he said. “I had a gentleman walk into my office and tell me he just got diagnosed at the VA Hospital in Albany with stage 4 blood cancer, and he has a couple of weeks to live, and he’s there with his wife because he wants to get the paperwork filled out so she can be taken care of once he’s gone. That happened in June of last year, and by August he was gone, but by the time he passed away she got 100% of his benefits, they were passed on to her. So, yeah, you have to be realistic about what you’re doing, and priorities do change, and should from time to time, because of things of that nature.”

Engel said he believes moving the Veteran’s Service Agency is a good idea.

“I’ll be honest the office space was something that was long overdue, and they didn’t even give me a warning that I was going to be let go, so there’s a lot of shenanigans that goes on with the county government,” Engel said. “How they’re going to cut-up the space now, I don’t know, because I’m not there, and I have no input. I had asked for different office space, but for me, it’s too little too late.”

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Stead anticipates the Veterans Service Agency will be relocated to Route 29 site, at the earliest, in the beginning of May. He said Fulton County is still soliciting applicants to fill the director of Veterans Service Agency job, which pays between $46,807 to $53,447, but can only be filled by a military veteran who lives in Fulton County, preferably one with a ‘demonstrated experience in government and/or familiarity with veterans’ programs,’ according to the job advertisement.

“We have advertising out,” Stead said, indicating the Board of Supervisors intends to hire another full-time director. “We expect resumes by the deadline over the next week or so, and we’ll do a review of those and start setting up interviews.”

By Jason Subik

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