Rhonda Murphy, the county of Santa Barbara’s unsung veterans’ service officer for the past 25 years, got her song sung long and loud by the county supervisors this Tuesday. Typically, such public accolades are dished out only upon retirement, but Murphy — who herself served time in the U.S. Navy — isn’t going anywhere. Even so, County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino — who recounted what it was like working across the hallway from Murphy — exclaimed, “It feels like she’s ready to retire, but she isn’t.”
Murphy has amassed the second-longest tenure in the post of all veterans’ service officers throughout the state. But she was also just appointed president of the statewide association of veteran service officers, making her the first woman to hold the title. That’s what gave rise to Tuesday’s accolade fest.
Santa Barbara County currently has 20,000 veterans living within its borders, and the rules and regulations governing the dispensation of their benefits are labyrinthine in the extreme. Lavagnino recounted the exasperation he sensed among the veterans he saw working with Murphy. “They were frustrated in the extreme,” he said. She exhibited rare skill cutting through the red tape, he stated. But she also knew how to tell them harsh truths they probably didn’t want to hear.
Last year, Murphy helped veterans in Santa Barbara secure $10 million in benefits. Translated into simple math, that’s $7,300 per veteran. And that, according to Murphy’s boss, Harry Hagen — county tax collector and public administrator — is double the statewide average. The size of her department, by contrast, has been only one-third as large as the numbers of veterans living in Santa Barbara County would warrant.
Every dollar Murphy helped secure, Hagen said, has a seven-fold multiplier impact on the local economy. “That’s the equivalent of $70 million,” he said.
During COVID and all its social-distancing complications, Murphy managed to figure out how to conduct 3,000 in-person visits and 30,000 electronic communications. During county budget deliberations earlier this year, Hagen went to the mat for Murphy, demanding — with uncharacteristic impatience and urgency — that the Murphy be given two additional staff to help her do her job. The supervisors, led by Supervisor Joan Hartmann, complied. Hartmann, who was behind Tuesday’s accolade fest, stated, “I’m thrilled as a woman you reached the height of your field.”