AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Will veterans' families have to pay Georgia to be buried together?

The Georgia House Appropriations Committee asked auditors to review the state's veterans services and figure out if there were ways the state could come up with more money to help Georgia's Vets.

At least one of the money-raising suggestions auditors offered is bound to get the attention of lawmakers, and veterans. And not necessarily in a good way.

The state's Department of Veterans Services spends about $40 million a year in state, federal and other types of funding. About two-thirds of it goes for nursing home services for veterans.

Some of the suggestions auditors made involved getting more federally-funded or -subsidized health care benefits and getting counties and local service organizations to become more financially involved.

And then there's getting families to pay for the interment of veterans' spouses and dependents at veterans cemeteries.

Taxpayers cover the full burial cost for spouses and dependents of veterans at state veterans cemeteries. Auditors found that six of 10 states that they looked at charged interment fees to bury spouses and dependents. Interment fees ranged from $300 to $700 to provide cemetery services for a casket burial.

In fiscal 2015, which ended June 30, about 21 percent of the 414 burials at the state's veterans cemeteries were of spouses and dependents of veterans.

The report said charging a $500 fee per burial would raise an additional $43,500 a year  in revenue, a tiny fraction of what the agency spends.

In a state with a long history of reverence for veterans, that would be a tough sell in the General Assembly, which would likely have to change state law to allow the fees.

The state's Department of Veterans Services told auditors it had concerns about the fees as well. It said the U.S. Veterans Administration doesn't charge for burial at national cemeteries, so the state of Georgia matches federal policy.

It added, according to the audit, that "charging a nominal fee may discourage veterans from using this benefit for final resting places. Based on the current mix of veterans to non-veterans interred at the state's veterans' cemeteries, the negative message sent to the veterans of Georgia by charging a fee far outweigh the minimal amount of funds to be generated."

Lawmakers would probably agree. Even if they supported the idea, legislators are particularly risk-averse in an election year like 2016. So the idea is likely DOA.


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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.