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Melrose,Wakefield form veterans service district

Melrose and Wakefield have agreed to regionalize veterans services starting July 1, a move aimed at controlling costs and improving services for veterans in each community.

Following guidelines set by the state Department of Veterans’ Services, the two communities will form a veterans services district, sharing the cost of two full-time employees, plus support staff, to meet the needs of an estimated 4,000 veterans living in the two communities.

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“Veterans today face very complex issues,” said Melrose Mayor Robert J. Dolan. “They’re dealing with posttraumatic stress from war, health issues, high unemployment. . . . As a result, the job of a veterans agent is more involved.”

Wakefield Town Administrator Stephen P. Maio did not respond to requests for comment. The town’s Board of Selectmen voted to approve the new district in May. Wakefield has shared a veterans agent with Saugus and Stoneham for 30 years. The Melrose Board of Aldermen approved the consolidation in April.

State law requires that communities of more than 12,000 residents have a full-time agent to help veterans obtain state benefits, including education and health care. Smaller communities must employ a part-time agent.

‘We recognize the fiscal pressure on municipalities. At the same time, we want to make sure veterans receive an appropriate level of service.’

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But not all communities comply with the law. Tight budgets have prompted some communities to leave the position unfilled, or to not fund benefits owed to veterans and their families. The state reimburses a community for 75 percent of the cost of benefits paid to a veteran.

For years, small towns have shared a veterans agent to control costs. But the state Department of Veterans Services last year published guidelines for communities to formalize those relationships, and encouraged communities of similar populations to consider forming service districts.

“We recognize the fiscal pressure on municipalities,” said Matthew McKenna, a spokesman for the state Department of Veterans’ Services. “At the same time, we want to make sure veterans receive an appropriate level of service.”

The state has approved 18 veterans service districts. Among them are Boxford and North Andover, and the Eastern Essex District — made up of Essex, Georgetown, Hamilton, Ipswich, Rowley, Wenham, and West Newbury. The two districts formalized longstanding agreements among the towns to share veterans agents.

“Many communities shared services almost by a gentleman’s agreement,” McKenna said. “We encourage them to adopt our guidelines. We want to ensure that veterans in the communities are served with the same level of benefits they deserve.”

State guidelines require that each district employ a full-time executive director and a veterans service officer. The number of support staff may vary, depending on a district’s size. Communities share the cost of employee salaries and wages but maintain their own operating budgets to pay benefits to veterans from their communities.

The Melrose-Wakefield district will split $97,000 in salaries and wages for the district in fiscal 2013, which starts July 1. Each community will continue to pay for its own services provided to veterans.

Dolan said he believes Melrose and Wakefield are a good match. Melrose has a population of about 27,000 residents, and Wakefield about 24,000, according to census data.

“We’re communities of similar demographics, budgets, and priorities,” he said.

Melrose has 1,800 veterans living in the city. Wakefield has 2,200 veterans. Melrose Veterans Agent Ryan McLane will be the district director. He is in the process of hiring a veterans service officer, who must be a veteran. That person will be based in Wakefield, McLane said.

“By combining our efforts we should be able to reach more veterans,” McLane said. “We want to focus more on outreach. We want to get the word out about what benefits are available to veterans or their families.”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at kmccabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.

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