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Veterans' agency director gets raise as agency makes other budget cuts

(KOKH/FILE)

On a ledge where decisions makers would sit, was the agenda for the November meeting of the Oklahoma Veterans Commission. It is the group that oversees the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs. The agenda was available to those who walked in, but for the general public just finding out when the meeting was would prove a challenge.

It was a potentially controversial meeting where the planned closure of a veterans’ center was announced and the agency’s director was given a raise despite tough budget times for all state agencies.

The ODVA’s website which lists commission meetings told the public the 10:00 AM meeting would not begin until 11:00, but the meeting notice users had to download had the accurate time.

The meeting was potentially controversial, but the public seeking to verify the start time with the agenda would find out the agenda was not posted online. State law requires agencies with a website to post the agenda on the agency website. In this case, the ODVA had the words that were supposed to link to an agenda, but the actual link did not take users to the agenda.

“There was no effort to intentionally mislead the public as to the time and nature of the ODVA commission’s meeting today,” said agency spokesman Shane Faulkner in an email to FOX 25.

We replied to Faulkner asking how two mistakes that could lead to the public not knowing the correct time or the topics set to be discussed about the care of the state’s veterans and the expenditure of public funds happened. Faulkner replied, “There was no effort to intentionally mislead the public as to the time and nature of the ODVA commission’s meeting today.”

The meeting went forward, despite the violation of the state law requiring posting the agenda on the website. Staff would change the website after complaints by FOX 25 to reflect the accurate start time, just before the meeting got underway.

Veterans had contacted FOX 25 about the meeting because of the major issues being discussed. One of the top issues was the closure of the veterans’ center in Talihina. The closure will be accompanied by the building of a new VA center in McAlester.

Major General (Ret.) Myles Deering told commissioners the closure is in part due to the costs of upkeep of the aging center and also because of the inability to attract doctors. “We did pull someone who was closing down their practice and he did agree to come work for us at Talihina,” Deering, the executive director for the ODVA told FOX 25, “But we were without a doctor where we had to pull physicians from other centers to come in behind them so we could maintain that medical care.”

Doctor care at the state-run facilities is a concern. Other centers around the state have doctors who have had issues with their medical licenses. Sometimes doctors serving veterans have come to the state’s service following issues ranging from drug abuse to inappropriate relationships.

“We try to provide the best we can for veterans,” Deering said. “Sometimes the amount we can pay those doctors aren't sufficient enough to attract the ones we would best like to attract.”

Deering also told commissioners some pharmacists positions have been cut at centers. The cuts to one center leave one pharmacists for 200 patients, which the ODVA says is an acceptable case load.

“We're not sacrificing any quality of our care or providing those services to our residents,” Deering told FOX 25. “The fact is we will have the same coverage and we will be able to do the same thing.”

The new center in McAlester will be possible, the agency said, if the legislature leaves the ODVA budget alone for the next two years. The construction will be funded through cuts made throughout the ODVA during Deering’s tenure at the agency.

“He's probably saved us $3.5 to $4 million putting the ODVA on a business footing,” commission chairman John Carter told FOX 25.

Carter was responding to questions about the commission’s decision to give Deering a raise. He told FOX 25 the governor’s office had also contacted him about the wisdom of raising an agency leader’s salary in the current budget environment.

The ODVA's budget was cut during the last legislative session at the same time legislators gave their own budgets a multi-million dollar increase.

“If you want good people, if you want leaders to stay in these positions you have to pay them a reasonable rate,” Carter told FOX 25, “General Deering wasn't pushing for a raise, but it was important that we recognize what he has done.”

Deering’s raise will be $15,000 a year; which Carter says does not reach the average salary for agency heads in Oklahoma. He told FOX 25 the money for the raise will come from other central office positions that have been eliminated through attrition.

“There are a lot of people at the ODVA, nurses, doctors that we would like to increase their pay and the day will come when we can do that,” Carter said, “But we had the opportunity here to come up with 15,000 annually to increase the pay of our director.”

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