The Conversation: Vets homes in budget crossfire

11/13/2011 12:00 AM

02/20/2012 2:41 PM

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State officials and construction managers are bursting with pride as they show off a new $88 million veterans home nearing completion in Redding.

It's energy efficient, embraces the latest thinking in elderly care, will win design awards and will become a national model, they tell me. The 150 rooms, bigger and nicer than in many hotels, boast flat-screen TVs and roll-in bathrooms. My personal favorite feature: instead of a name tag next to each door, there's a memory box where residents can display medals, photos and other mementos.

There's only one snag.

But it's a big one, and like most everything else these days, it has to do with the beleaguered state budget.

While construction is nearly 90 percent done and on track to be finished in January, there's no money yet to hire staff. Under the current plan, the first veteran won't move in for at least another year, some time in early 2013. The same delay is slowing a 300-bed, $159 million veterans home in Fresno scheduled to be finished in April.

As the brand-new homes sit empty, a handful of workers will turn on the lights, flush the toilets and do other basic maintenance so the buildings don't fall into disrepair. The price tag: about $280,000 a month for the two homes combined.

Even by state government standards, this seems just crazy.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1934 in downtown Redding is definitely not state of the art; it is proudly old-fashioned. There's a big American flag above the pool tables, and wood paneling everywhere. On the wall above the shuffleboard games, there are faded, decades-old photos of veterans in uniform.

The post is alive with memories. And these days, it's also full of disappointment, tinged with anger, at what's happening with the veterans home.

Sitting at the bar, post commander Rudy Castaneda, 62, says area vets badly need the home. Disabled by a rocket-propelled grenade in Vietnam, he might want to live there some day himself.

"I've been griping about this," he says. "I sure hope they get this on the road right away."

Local vets and their supporters, who have been pushing for the home for more than two decades, also waited decades for the nearby Northern California Veterans Cemetery, which finally opened in 2005.

"It's been a long, hard fight," Palmer Spurlin, 78, who served in Korea, tells me. "I think I'll use the cemetery first."

He's only halfway joking.

Vets caught in budget standoff

The veterans homes are supposed to offer affordable and dignified havens for vets who are 55 or older, disabled or homeless – sometimes all three. The fees are based on income, with maximums ranging from $4,500 a month for residential care to $5,600 for skilled nursing care.

To keep up with the need, the state has been on a building binge. Since late 2009, it has opened three homes in Southern California. Now, it's the turn for Northern California and the Central Valley.

The two groundbreakings the same week in May 2010 were cause for celebration. Nearly 1,000 people showed up in Redding, where then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that he was keeping his promise to "honor and give back to the men and women who sacrificed so much for us."

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs, which pays 65 percent of the construction costs, officially approved $142 million in grants last month.

The state pays the rest and is also responsible for operating and maintaining the homes. It has already invested more than $103 million in the two homes. When they're fully up and running, the net operating costs will be in the neighborhood of $12 million a year for Fresno and $6 million for Redding.

During about two years of construction, the homes have generated dozens of jobs and millions of dollars in local contracts. Once they open, they will eventually provide about 250 permanent jobs in Redding and about 440 in Fresno.

The homes, however, have fallen victim to the budget crisis, and become enmeshed in the partisan fight in Sacramento.

Last session, legislators from the Redding and Fresno areas unsuccessfully sought to transfer $8.1 million in unused prison construction money to open the homes in 2012.

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, a Republican who represents Redding, says there was an agreement during the budget negotiations to delay the homes' opening by only three months, but that provision disappeared by the time majority Democrats finished putting together the budget.

"Strange things happen in the legislative and budget process," he told me. "It could be money, it could be politics."

Democrats blame Republicans for steadfastly opposing any tax hikes to avoid painful cuts in state programs like veterans homes. They also point out that the homes were authorized during better budget times and that they are expensive to operate for the benefit of relatively few people.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez toured the Fresno home in July and declared that he was "fully committed" to the project. Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for Perez, says he supports opening both homes and also expanding other housing for veterans, such as emergency shelters for the homeless, but it all depends on the revenues that are available – and that depends on Republican votes.

And that puts the veterans homes in the crossfire, to the dismay of advocates.

"Veterans are not partisan," says Linda Hartman, a Shasta County supervisor who is chairwoman of the Redding home's support committee. "There's a tremendous need for a home in the north state."

The budget crunch isn't just cramping the new homes.

The state Department of Veterans Affairs has limited admissions to its six existing homes because of staffing shortages. While the department says more than 96 percent of the 1,750 "budgeted" beds were occupied as of October, that doesn't count about 950 spaces that are licensed and could be made available if there were enough staff. At the same time, there were 446 vets on the state's official waiting list.

At a statewide conference hosted by the department last month, William Manes, California legislative chairman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, complained that there are too many beds sitting empty.

Robin Umberg, the state's new undersecretary for veterans homes, responded by saying she feels terrible telling veterans there are no available beds, but that's the budget reality.

Home offers amenities aplenty

Veterans can't even apply yet to live in the new Redding and Fresno homes, which are the state's first with all private rooms; the state is only accepting a "statement of intent to apply."

At the conference with veterans group leaders, Umberg said that officials are "hoping" to open the Redding and Fresno homes in January 2013.

Former state Sen. Maurice Johannessen, who authored legislation in the early 2000s for the Redding home and is a former state veterans affairs secretary, says he's still optimistic that timetable will happen. "We are not in a panic mode," says Johannessen, who worries that sounding the alarm too loudly will backfire.

The 160,000-square-foot collection of low-slung beige buildings sits on 26 acres in south Redding, across the road from a public golf course and near the local airport. There are five interconnected "neighborhoods" of 30 residents each. Two of the neighborhoods will provide skilled nursing care, including one for those with Alzheimer's disease and other dementia. The other three will be for those who can mostly care for themselves.

Each neighborhood will have its own living room with a cool-to-the-touch electric fireplace. Each will have a courtyard with trees, gazebos and nice views, including of Mount Lassen. In the main entrance hall, there will be a post office, grocery, bank, barbershop and a hall of heroes. Nearby, there will be a chapel with stained glass windows and a dining hall with table service. Out back, there's an outdoor recreation area with bocce ball, shuffleboard and a playground for the grandkids.

After construction, the home has to be equipped, staff hired and trained, and state licenses obtained. The usual time lag is about four to six months, state officials say. For the Redding home, that means it would open next summer.

Due to the budget crunch, however, the official opening date is January 2013. Even if that happens, with the normal phased move-in of eight veterans a month, the home wouldn't be fully occupied until mid-2014. Depending on the budget, there could be further delays.

J.P. Tremblay, a state veterans deputy secretary who toured the home with me, says the department has a commitment to veterans to open the home as soon as money is available.

"It's not going to be shuttered for years on end," he vows.

That's hardly reassuring to vets.

"To me," Manes of the VFW says, "it's a very, very large problem."

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