Easton selectmen voted unanimously Monday night to support an agreement with the towns of Norton, Foxborough and Mansfield to The district would be called the Crossroads Veterans Services District.
The vote came after a heated discussion with approximately one dozen of Easton's veterans who adamantly disapproved of the district and felt the lack of one full-time agent in Easton would not provide adaquate support for Easton Veterans.
The plan, which has been approved by Easton, Norton and Foxboro (Mansfield votes next week) would make Mansfield agent John Hogan and Foxborough agent Michael Johns full-time agents for the four towns. Each town would also train a receptionist to answer veteran-related questions and screen veterans in the absence of the agent.
The four-town plan, selectmen said, would be re-evaluated in a year.
For the past 18 months, Easton has been part of a two-town veterans district with Norton. The veterans agent for the two-town district was Easton resident Steve Nolan, who recently retired.
"If any of you have ever had the opportunity to have a veteran as a father, mother, brother or sister, aunt or uncle, we know you wouldn't want just anyone taking care of your loved one," said Alvin Smart, Commander of Private George F. Schindler Post 2547, Veterans of Foreign Wars in a prepared statement.
Board of Selectman Chair Colleen Corona, who explained that her father was a veteran who received veterans services, said the board's decision needs to encompass all of the needs of the town.
"We are faced with so many hard choices," she said. "I know so many people in this room served the country and I have so much respect for that. I’m serving the town. I know that I have to do some things that don’t make people happy."
Selectman Dan Murphy said creating the district did not save the town money. Instead, it would improve agent to case-load ratios from the current Easton-Norton district of which Easton is a part. The four towns together would serve about 120 veteran caseloads: 42 in Norton, 43 in Easton, 17 in Mansfield and 18 in Foxborough.
"There is no cost savings in this plan," said Murphy. "This is not about money. This is about providing better services. I’ve talked to many people over the past two weeks and I believe that you will get better services."
Selectman Sean Noonan said many of the veterans met with Michael Johns, the current Foxborough agent, last week. While he said he felt the meeting went well, many of the veterans had their concerns.
American Legion Post 7 Commander Joseph Moran said that while the case-load would improve for the time-being, agents could quickly become overwhelmed by returning vets from Afghanistan and Iraq.
"My question to the Foxborough agent was what happens when all these veterans come back from Afghanistan and Iraq?" he said. "They are scheduled to come back in a very short time and that will put an extra burden on them."
Noonan said he trusted Johns and believed the plan would be successful. Still, he cites communication between the board and Easton's veterans as a problem.
"I can’t completely disagree with the fact that there wasn't enough information out there," he said. "It was important for me to go to that meeting so I could meet Mr. Johns. I came away from that meeting feeling good about him and feeling good about his enthusiasm - especially the outreach portion."
Town Administrator David Colton said that since Easton regionalized with Norton, Veterans have still received all of their benefits. He said that during that period $272,000 in benefits were paid to Easton's veterans. In the previous year $227,000 in benefits were paid and the year before $194,000 of benefits were paid.
Combining the four towns, he said, would not disrupt Easton's current agent to town ratio.
"Benefits continue to get paid," he said. "People continue to get services. We already over the last couple of years have been dealing with people from Afghanistan and Iraq."
Many of the veterans, including Smart, felt that relying on an agent from another town would leave Easton by the wayside.
"Now, we veterans don't have anyone to take care of veterans in Easton like they should be taken care of," he said. "We don't want a district. We don't want a veterans agent from another town coming here trying to take care of Easton's veterans - they won't receive the attention they deserve. Another veterans agent from another town is going to concentrate on veterans' from their town - not ours. That's a a fact."
Selectman Todd Gornstein suggested using an Easton veteran as a volunteer or employee on the agent's support staff to help veterans with their needs.
VFW member Larry Hurley agreed with Gornstein. He added that a veteran could be hired in the Town Hall clerical position who will be trained to screen veterans.
"Mr. Gornstein had a terrific idea," he said. "It’s a veteran and he’d be dealing with veterans."
To view a draft of the plan, to be voted on by Mansfield next week, click on the attached .pdf.
Editor's Note: An original version of this article quoted Joseph Moran as Ernie Camara. Patch regrets the error.