BOSTON (SHNS) – Wednesday was the first day on the job for Secretary of Veterans’ Services Jon Santiago and he spent part of the afternoon standing with Gov. Maura Healey as she rolled out a state budget plan that recommends more than $185 million for the new secretariat in fiscal year 2024.
The Department of Veterans’ Services, which became a Cabinet-level executive office Wednesday under a 2022 law that responded to governance and operational shortcomings that proved fatal during the pandemic, exists to serve the roughly 380,000 veterans in Massachusetts and their families.
The department runs the soldiers’ homes in Chelsea and Holyoke, administers a benefits program through the municipal agents, funds annuity benefits to Gold Star families, acts as a liaison for veterans seeking federal assistance, and operates two state veterans’ cemeteries.
Healey’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposes a budget of $185.6 million for the new secretariat, which the administration said includes funding for the “operational, policy, and leadership infrastructure” required now that veterans’ services is its own executive office rather than a part of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. That’s up about 6.5 percent from the $174.25 million in total funding that the department got in the FY23 budget.
“As DVS continues to grow, it will work to fully staff its newly created fiscal, facilities, legislative, communications, and legal operations and develop new information technology, labor relations, and human resources structures to meet the needs of a secretariat,” the administration wrote in a budget memo, which also laid out the new executive office’s leadership structure.
Budget documents indicate that the department had the equivalent of 74 full-time employees as of January and is projected to expand to 126 employees in fiscal 2024. Healey’s budget includes $49 million for the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, a slight decrease that the administration said reflects the absence of $1.7 million in one-time costs budgeted in fiscal 2023 while covering inflationary and staffing cost increases.
It also recommends $30 million for the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, a slight increase over the current budget. Both facilities are in the process of being replaced, but those projects are funded through the capital improvement plan and federal funding rather than the state budget.
Chelsea’s 136-bed long-term care Quigley Building will be phased out in May and replaced by a new Community Living Center, a $200 million project reimbursed at 65 percent by the federal government.
The Holyoke replacement project is in the design phase and is projected to wrap by 2027. The state has already received $160 million in conditional federal funding for the project and expects a reimbursement rate of up to 65 percent for the rest of the project.