Keller, VA officials discuss ways to improve veterans’ services

July 17, 2021
In The News

WILKES-BARRE — In response to growing concerns over the lack of access to vital military service records and benefits, U.S. Rep. Fred Keller this week hosted a roundtable discussion with local Veterans Affairs (VA) officials to highlight his legislative efforts and identify avenues for continued cooperation to improve the quality and accessibility of services for local veterans.

Keller, R-Middleburg, spoke at an event in Williamsport that was attended by officials from the Wilkes-Barre VA, as well as veterans’ service officers (VSOs) from seven of the 15 counties that encompass Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District.

During their discussion, Keller emphasized the backlog of more than 500,000 vital records requests that remain unprocessed by the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC). These are documents needed to obtain VA benefits, adjudicate disability claims, and request a commendation, award, or regalia.

Last year, the NPRC was forced to scale down its on-site operations due to COVID-19 precautions and is currently staffed at only 25 percent capacity. As a result, area veterans and their families have been forced to wait up to a year to receive medical care or access benefits earned through military service.

Keller highlighted the RECORDS Act, legislation he introduced in June which would compel the NPRC to fully resume in-person operations and present a report to Congress on its plans to expedite veterans’ records requests. The bill has attracted 44 co-sponsors and was recently endorsed by the Lycoming Office of Veterans Affairs.

Also discussed were concerns about identification cards, facilitating VA claims, and strategies for local, state, and federal partners to work collaboratively to improve veterans’ services across the board.

Following the event, Congressman Keller made the following statement:

“The brave men and women who have served our country in uniform deserve a government that is responsive to their needs and that works diligently on their behalf. Our discussion today reaffirmed that the RECORDS Act is needed and works toward establishing long-term solutions to address the delays at the NPRC. I’m grateful for the partnership our office has with local officials as we continue to put pressure on the NPRC to make good on the promise that America makes to our service members, who have sacrificed so much in the protection of our freedoms and way of life.”

Auditor General Timothy L. DeFoor this week said audits show municipalities in 11 counties failed to make required employer contributions to their employee pension plans, prompting him to again warn local governments that they cannot use federal COVID relief funds to catch up on missed payments.

DeFoor said Bristol Borough in Bucks County tops the list of recent audits with such findings. The borough owes more than $757,836 in required contributions, including interest, to its police and employee pension plans for 2019 and 2020.

“My audit team is seeing a troubling rise in the number of municipalities that are failing to fully fund their employee retirement plans as state law requires,” DeFoor said. “I’m again warning municipalities that they cannot use federal COVID relief funds provided under the American Rescue Plan to catch up on past pension debts.”

According to the AG’s report, in Luzerne County, the audit found the City of Pittston Police Pension Plan is owed $218,102.

On June 14, AG DeFoor released audits showing the City of Chester in Delaware County owes more than $34 million in back employer contributions to its three employee pension plans. He shared these audits with the court-appointed receiver that is overseeing the city’s financial recovery.

DeFoor added that municipalities that do not make the employer contributions required by law run the risk of having future state pension aid withheld.

The Department of the Auditor General audits municipal pension plans that receive state aid to ensure the plans are being administered in accordance with state law.

In 2020, the Department of the Auditor General distributed a total of $324.74 million in state pension aid to 1,483 municipalities and regional departments to support pension plans covering police officers, paid firefighters and non-uniformed employees.

Pennsylvania Treasurer Stacy Garrity this week announced the PA 529 College and Career Savings Program (PA 529) had its best year ever in fiscal year 2020-21, adding 25,004 new accounts while bringing in more than $732 million in total contributions.

These numbers are the largest in the nearly 30-year history of PA 529.

“This exceptional growth shows that Pennsylvania families continue to prioritize their children’s futures,” Garrity said. “PA 529 accounts have been helping families save for education for almost three decades, and it’s incredibly encouraging to see so many people taking advantage of this valuable savings tool. The program continues to evolve and offer families the ability to meet their savings goals — whether their child plans to get a technical certification, attend trade school, or get a college degree.”

There are currently more than 265,000 open PA 529 accounts with balances that have grown through contributions and investment growth to a combined $6.8 billion. The first PA 529 account was opened in 1993, when it was known as the Tuition Account Program.

The PA 529 College and Career Savings Program offers two different ways to save — The PA 529 Investment Plan (IP) and the PA 529 Guaranteed Savings Plan (GSP). Both offer important tax benefits, including a Pennsylvania state income tax deduction on contributions and no taxes paid on withdrawals for qualified education expenses. Savings in PA 529 accounts do not affect state financial aid eligibility. Accounts can be opened with as little as $10.

The PA 529 IP — which is one of only 14 such plans to earn a Silver or Gold rating from Morningstar — allows families to choose from a variety of investment options, including target enrollment date portfolios. These portfolios shift investments gradually and automatically as the child nears his or her enrollment date. Returns depend on financial market performance.

The PA 529 GSP is a lower-risk option that allows families to save at today’s college tuition rates to cover future expenses. Account owners can save enough for a semester of college today, and no matter how much tuition increases, the savings will cover that semester in the future.

PA 529 accounts can be used to pay for tuition and eligible fees at four-year colleges, community colleges, technical and vocational training programs, and qualified apprenticeship programs in Pennsylvania and nationwide. Savings can also be used to pay for books, supplies, room and board, and more.

Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding this week announced the availability of $13 million in tax credits to Pennsylvania farmers for measures to improve soil and water quality.

Tax credits are available through Pennsylvania’s innovative, nationally-recognized conservation financing program — Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP).

“Farmers have led the way in ensuring that we have clean water and productive soil to sustain us in the future,” Redding said. “Renewing soil and protecting water require substantial investments on their parts. REAP tax credits are just one element of our strategy to support farmers’ stewardship and grow a viable, sustainable Pennsylvania farm economy to feed our future.”

REAP tax credits are available to agricultural producers who implement best management practices or purchase equipment that reduces nutrient and sediment runoff, enhancing soil and improving the quality of Pennsylvania’s waterways.

This is the 15th year Pennsylvania farmers have been able to take advantage of REAP tax credits. Farmers may receive up to $250,000 in any seven-year period, and spouses filling jointly can use REAP Tax Credits.

Examples of funded projects include no-till planting and precision ag equipment, waste storage facilities, conservation plans, Nutrient Management Plans. Measures that limit run-off from high animal-traffic areas like barnyards, as well as cover crops and riparian stream buffers that prevent erosion and keep nutrients out of streams are also common REAP-eligible practices.

Farmers may receive REAP tax credits of 50 to 75 percent of the project’s eligible out-of-pocket costs. Farmers whose operation is in a watershed with an EPA-mandated Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) can receive REAP tax credits of 90 percent of out-of-pocket costs for some projects.

Tax credits can be used in conjunction with other funding sources such as the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), the Chesapeake Bay Program or Conservation Excellence Grants to help install BMPs. REAP applications are reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis.