Fulton County hires new Veterans Service Agency director

PHOTOGRAPHER:

After an approximately five-month candidate search for a new director for the county’s Veterans Service Agency, the Fulton County Board of Supervisors last week voted unanimously to appoint Gloversville resident and retired U.S. Army Sgt. Ian Pitcavage to serve out the balance of the position’s typically two-year term, ending Dec. 31, 2023.

Pitcavage will be paid a prorated salary of $46,807 for the remainder of 2022 and then, provided he continues with the job, will receive a raise to $53,447 in 2023.

Pitcavage said he decided to apply for the job after his wife saw an ad for it in a newspaper. He said he went through the process of applying for federal disability benefits himself, and the main job of the county Veterans Service Agency director is to help veterans through that process.

“I understand, and I have a lot of empathy for veterans who go through that process,” he said.

Fulton County Administrator Jon Stead described the candidate search process.

“Right after the first of the year we went out with advertising and soliciting applications, and frankly we went through the first round when none of the applicants met the minimum qualifications for the job,” Stead said. “We went out and advertised in a little broader fashion, and Mr. Pitcavage was involved in that process, both at the committee level and at the full board level, and was appointed [May 9].”

The job has been vacant since January when the Board of Supervisors, during its annual organizational meeting, chose not to reappoint former Veterans Service Agency Director Dan Engel in a rare party-line 14-3 vote, with only the board’s Democrats — 1st Ward Supervisor Marie Born, 2nd Ward Supervisor Frank Lauria and 5th Ward Supervisor Greg Young — voting to support Engel for another two-year stint.

A combination of state and federal minimum requirements make for a relatively small candidate pool for filling the job of a full-time county Veterans Service Agency director. New York state requires county agency directors to be residents of the county they work for, have a bachelor’s degree and three years of managerial experience, or have an associate’s degree with five years of management experience.

New York state also requires the county veterans agency director to be a veteran who served in the active military for at least 10 years, and during a time period when the U.S. military was involved in an armed conflict.

The state also requires veterans service agency directors to eventually obtain a federal Veterans Service Organization (VSO) accreditation within one year of appointment.

Stead said obtaining the veterans organization accreditation is key to enabling the county Veterans Service Agency director to work directly with veterans and their families as they pursue their benefit claims from the federal government, the core activity of the job. He said Pitcavage has agreed to obtain the federal accreditation within a year, but can function in the job in the meantime by helping to refer veterans to other people who have the organization accreditation.

“We’re doing that now, even when the position was vacant we have [senior typist Brenda Anich] working in that office full-time and she’s been relaying [local veterans’ claims] and working with other VSOs right along,” he said. “We’ve been doing pretty well with keeping up with [benefit claim] applications that were filed previously, and also working with one of the state VSOs for any of the new applications that came up during the first quarter of this year, so yeah there’s been other VSOs filling in for now, and he will eventually be getting up to speed and become a VSO himself.”

Pitcavage is a 1990 Gloversville High School graduate who served in the U.S. Army for about 21 years, performing the duties of a military police officer for the 543 Military Police Company, stationed at Fort Drum.

Pitcavage said he meets the criteria for serving during a time of armed conflict, and biographical information about him released by Fulton County said he served during peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo and a three year deployment to the Middle East during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He said after earning an associates degree from Fulton-Montgomery Community College he got a job at Townsend Leather working as a “dry floor leader” from 2012 to 2019, where he would often have as many as 30 people working under him. Since then he’s been self-employed as a state-licensed Mold Assessment Inspector working in the local region.

Pitcavage said he will give up his business as a mold inspector to do the job of being Fulton County’s full time Veterans Service Agency director.

The Board of Supervisors’ decision to keep the agency director a full-time job, despite the difficulties in finding someone who fits the hiring criteria, is a continuation of a policy that former agency director Engel had lobbied the board to adopt.

Engel had successfully lobbied the Board to expand his position from part-time in 2018 to full-time starting in 2019, arguing that he could be more successful in pursuing the often difficult and complex veterans benefits claims working full-time.

In December, Engel sent the Board of Supervisors a report that included a chart from the federal Department 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 was full-time. The increase occurred despite the total number of veterans living in Fulton County declining from 3,824 in 2018 down to 3,726 for 2019. The number of veterans went down again in 2020 to 3,711, but the total federal expenditure continued to increase, rising to $24.9 million.

After he was not reappointed Engel, and several of his vocal supporters in Fulton County’s veteran community, argued that his aggressive style and knowledge of the VA department enabled him to both help local veterans get the benefits they are entitled to, and help bring federal cash stimulus into Fulton County.

Engel in January attributed the board’s choice to not reappoint him to several factors including office politics over which county department would be allowed to move into the former Fulton County Emergency Management office space on Route 29 and increasing friction between Engel and Stead.

Engel had argued the county Veterans Service Agency needed to be moved out of the basement of the county’s 223 W. Main St. building in Johnstown in part because it lacked adequate privacy for veterans to speak openly about their medical conditions and because he didn’t think there was a properly accessible method of exiting the basement office for a disabled veteran in a wheelchair, both claims Stead has said the county government does not believe are correct.

Engel described an incident in June 2021 when he said he accidentally left his cell phone in the Fulton County Board of Supervisors chambers during an executive session of the board and someone called the phone, revealing its presence. Several supervisors confirmed this story was true.

Engel in January said he had been advised by legal counsel not to discuss the details of the cell phone incident, but said that “It was proven that I never recorded anything, I’ll tell you that.”

Since then, Fulton County has announced a department relocation plan that moves the County Information Technology Department and the Fulton County Board of Elections into the Route 29 office formerly occupied by the Fulton County Emergency Management Office. The office relocation plan also moves the Veterans Service Agency into the space next to the Highways and Facilities Department in the “Complex I” building on Route 29.

On Monday Stead said the Veterans Service Agency won’t complete its move to the Route 29 office until mid-June, with Pitcavage’s starting date set for around June 1.

“Construction on the new work space has begun, and we’re hoping somewhere near the end of this month or maybe mid-June it will be ready for transferring all of the equipment, the desks, operations, and of course we have to get computer hookups and lines and all of that type of thing,” Stead said.

Pitcavage said he’s unconcerned by where the VSA office is located.

“It’s not what the office looks like, it’s what you do when you’re in it,” Pitcavage said.

Pitcavage said he has no comment about his predecessor, but also said he will not judge his own performance based on any comparison to the amount of federal benefits obtained for local veterans during Engel’s tenure.

“I approach this job as I’ve approached any other job I’ve done in the military and that’s to get in there and execute it to the best of my ability,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs publishes county-level expenditure data updated annually online at www.va.gov/vetdata/expenditures.asp.

By Jason Subik

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