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Bill de Blasio agrees to back creation of stand-alone city office of veterans affairs

Mayor Bill de Blasio arrives at City Hall

Mayor Bill de Blasio arrives at City Hall in Manhattan on Sept. 21, 2015. Photo Credit: AP / Seth Wenig

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had hesitated earlier this year, now supports the opening of a department-level city office of veterans affairs, a change of heart viewed by advocates as a triumph for former service members living in the city who will get services more closely focused on veterans' needs.

With de Blasio's support in place, the City Council could vote on the issue as soon as Tuesday -- 24 hours ahead of Veterans Day.

"This is a tremendous victory for the veterans movement," said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, in a statement.

Rieckhoff's Manhattan-based organization has leaned hard on de Blasio to focus more on the plight of veterans as they grapple with homelessness, substance abuse, unemployment and reintegration into civilian life.

In a statement, de Blasio said he and his staff are "proud to join the City Council to support legislation creating an agency dedicated to our brave veterans and their families."

For at least two years, Rieckhoff and others have lobbied de Blasio to get behind the creation of a cabinet-level post to serve the city's military veterans but the mayor had resisted.

Currently, the city administers its veterans service activities in de Blasio's office. As recently as June, just six de Blasio staff members worked in the office although by the end of the year, staffing is expected to increase to 20.

Since September 2014, Commissioner Loree Sutton has led the effort. Sutton is a retired Army brigadier general, Iraq War veteran and Army psychiatrist who once headed the giant medical center at Fort Hood, Texas.

Earlier, de Blasio defended the arrangement and cautioned against elevating the office to department status.

"I've never been convinced that turning an office into a department, in any subject matter, is necessarily the way to get things done best," de Blasio said during a Jan. 27 media gathering, according to a City Hall transcript.

"I like the plans that she's putting together," the mayor said then, referring to Sutton and her staff. "I think they're very aggressive."

Advocates like Rieckhoff, have criticized efforts to serve veterans from the mayor's office as being too dependent on coordination with other city agencies. City veterans have suffered because of it, advocates have said.

A City Council bill to create a Department of Veterans Affairs -- introduced in April 2014 -- is backed by 45 of the council's 51 members, according to the council's website.

Queens Republican Eric Ulrich, who chairs the council's Committee on Veterans, had quietly negotiated with the mayor for months, hoping to avoid a veto showdown. He had voiced frustration with the slow progress and in April said he might release the bill from committee to force the mayor to sign or veto the legislation. De Blasio was in Puerto Rico Thursday and attempts to reach his staff for clarification on why and when he chose to back a city-run veterans office were unsuccessful.

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