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Vets mobilized against building changes

The Sonoma Valley is home to some of the most active veterans in the North Bay, and thanks to a move last month by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, they’re mobilized and ready to defend their territory – the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall.

Three Sonoma Valley veterans groups – Bear Flag Post 1943, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and Jack London Post 489 of the American Legion – are among the most active in the county, helping make the Sonoma veterans building at 126 First St. W. the busiest of the seven owned by the county. But local veterans are concerned a change in management over the building will lead to unnecessary disorder among the ranks.

At its meeting on June 23, the Board of Supervisors reviewed a plan to hand over management of leasing rooms in the veterans building to a third party. Currently, management of the Sonoma Veterans Memorial Hall is handled by General Services, the county’s buildings-and-operations department. But leaders among Sonoma’s veterans groups worry that handing the building-management keys to a private contractor could be like promoting a bumbling corporal to lead a well-oiled battalion.

A small squad of veterans – two from Santa Rosa, three from Sonoma and one supporter from Ukiah – attended the June 23 meeting, military hats on their heads, to hear out the supervisors and listen to the proposition, which the board approved unanimously.

But some Sonoma veterans remain dubious.

“I don’t trust politicians unless they’re my neighbors and they’re discussing the neighborhood,” said Robert Piazza, Vietnam veteran and judge-advocate for the Valley’s VFW post, who’s acting as legal counsel for Sonoma VFW and the American Legion. “So I don’t trust third parties that don’t care about the veterans.”

But county General Services director Tawny Tesconi said that opening a competitive bidding process to determine who will manage the building on behalf of the county shouldn’t be cause for alarm. “There are several private and public organizations interested in this management,” Tesconi said. “General Services still has jurisdiction over the managers. We will know about everything they do.”

The county built its veterans buildings in the 1950s in accordance with the GI bill and the California Military and Veterans Code. The county assigned management of the Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Cotati buildings to the nonprofit organization United Camps, Conferences and Retreats (UCCR). The Sebastopol Center for the Arts operates the Sebastopol building.

The county spends roughly $700,000 annually to cover operating expenses for six of the seven buildings. Sebastopol receives no general fund money due to its management by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

But Piazza, who’s also CEO of the Price Pump Company, says he hasn’t been overly impressed by what he’s seen from other third-party vet-building managers in the county.

“Look at the Sebastopol building. They removed the signs and some medals, which violated the California Military and Veterans Code,” Piazza points out.

Piazza says UCCR is “a mixed bag” – having heard good things about them from Petaluma-area veterans, but problems in Santa Rosa, for instance, such as failure to unlock the building for events, etc. “Veterans have certain rights to these buildings and we don’t want to deal with managers who schedule public events without knowing we have priority,” said Piazza, voicing his concern.

Piazza added that even though veterans get preferential treatment with event leasing, the buildings are for public use and encourage the public to take advantage of them.

“These are taxpayer buildings, so they should get taxpayer use,” he said. “But they’re in such a state of disrepair they’ve become unattractive. Why don’t the supervisors take care of the buildings their constituents paid for?”

As it happens, the county recently conducted a building-condition assessment to rate the veterans facilities and compare the cost of rebuilding from scratch versus repairing the accumulated problems – things like broken air conditioning, threadbare carpeting and aging electric wiring.

Complete replacement of all seven buildings would cost the county nearly $53 million, while repairing the buildings was estimated at between $28 million and $38.5 million. The assessment recommended “replace” for most of the buildings; the lone exception was Guerneville, which scored a “poor” rating, ostensibly indicating that repairs could bring it back to life. The assessment only gives the supervisors a general idea to the states of the buildings. There is no guarantee the board will act in accordance to the assessment’s recommendations.

Dan Parker, commander of VFW Sonoma, said the Sonoma building in particular, while very old, does not need demolition.

“We’ve got a better facility than the others,” Parker said. “The supervisors let those buildings go into a state of disrepair, but in the ‘90s a civil engineer with VFW fixed the roof of the building and put some upgrades on non-structural items.”

What Parker, and others, take issue with instead is the change in management.

“We have over 30,000 veterans in Sonoma County, and the ones in the Valley vehemently protest the changing of management to a third party,” Parker said.

Tesconi said the Board of Supervisors tasked General Services to draft a single capital improvement project for each building, with a proposal due by early September. She said shifting to third-party managers would result in big savings that could help pay for facilities upgrades.

“We’re looking at a projected cost of $2.3 million to $2.5 million for (each) of them,” Tesconi said. “We’ve got a savings value of $600,000 by leasing management to third parties so we’re hoping the board could use those funds to get the project going. The rest of the money could come from the general fund or other sources.”

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said the project is the first phase of the proposed $28 million plan to repair the buildings. “We are trying to install a permanent repair program to put the buildings’ welfare back on schedule,” she said. “Most importantly, the supervisors want to honor all our veterans for their service, and these repairs are past due.”

Gorin added that the veterans will be involved with the candidate selection for the third party managers in the Sonoma building.

Mike Carr, president of UCCR, said his company would love to manage the Sonoma building if he secures the bid. “The Parks division and Board of Supervisors helped us so much to transfer communication between us and the veterans when we took over management in Cotati, Santa Rosa and Petaluma,” he said. “And we’d love to be able to do for Sonoma what we do for the veterans there.”

Carr added that as a nonprofit, any additional revenue from UCCR’s management of the buildings goes directly to maintenance. “We’re not here to give ourselves raises,” he said. “Having enough dollars for the veterans buildings is a concern for us.”

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