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United Veterans Council is eager to return to the Veterans Memorial Building when it reopens next year

Bob Patton of the United Veterans Council is already anticipating the prospect of veterans service programs returning to their old digs when the Santa Cruz County Veterans Memorial Building reopens. According to the county, this will happen in the spring of next year.

The Downtown Santa Cruz building has been empty for more than two years, ever since the county found the structure to be unsafe in January 2010 for use by the UVC and many other veteran outreach groups, some of which had been housed in the historical building since the 1930s.

When the veterans were evicted, the United Veterans Council, whose purpose is to provide a voice and representation for veterans and also oversee building operations, filed and won a lawsuit against the county for failing to provide them with an adequate alternative facility located at 1340 Emeline Ave. in Santa Cruz, which was meant to be temporary while the Memorial Building is closed. Winning the lawsuit provided them with additional space to use at the Emeline Avenue facility.

Since leaving the Memorial Building, which the UVC claimed was not necessary in the first place, the UVC and many other veterans’ services have provided a much more comprehensive and centralized operation out of the temporary facility, says Vietnam War veteran Patton, who serves as the building manager at the current facility.

When they moved their offices, they gathered many other veterans resource providers and housed them in the same building, effectively creating a one-stop-shop for veterans to obtain help accessing their benefits, getting registered with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, receiving healthcare, accessing resources for job placement and housing, and also getting counseling services.

But since the county confirmed last year that they will invest $3.4 million to rehabilitate the Memorial Building and plan to have it opened for service by next spring, Patton and UVC president Chuck Woodson are looking forward to returning to their original facility.

In addition to being a meaningful symbol for many older Santa Cruz veterans, Patton says that the Memorial Building is a better location and a more practical facility that allows them to defray some of their operational costs by renting out extra rooms for things like workshops and concerts, he says.

While the county owns the Veterans Memorial Building, they are required by the State Military and Veterans’ Code to provide veterans with a facility, he says.

The decision by the county to move forward with the repairs on the Memorial Building has helped to relieve much of the tension between the county and the UVC, but they aren’t out of the woods yet.

Many of the services provided at the Emeline Avenue location came close to being shut down entirely about two weeks ago due to a budget crisis, Patton says, adding that they have already cut back the hours of operations significantly. As a result, they are now able to operate only on Wednesdays, instead of five days a week.

President of the UVC Chuck Woodson says they were able to keep their doors open, at least on Wednesdays, because of donations from the community after publishing an appeal in local newspapers last week and a generous donation by a single veteran volunteer who chooses to remain anonymous.

Veteran Advocate Dean Kaufman and Veterans Services Officer Allan Moltzen, both employed by the county, can still be reached throughout the week and are housed nearby at 1400 Emeline Ave. Veterans in need of immediate assistance can reach Kaufman at 420-7348.

The UVC has been working hard to get more funding from the county, but things don’t look very promising.

Over the past two years, annual funding for their program has decreased from $55,000 to $26,000 for the current year, according to Public Information Officer for the county Dinah Phillips. But Patton says even with the help of volunteers, they need at least $120,000 a year to cover their operating expenses. The UVC receives funding through the Veterans Memorial Building Board of Trustees, of which Patton is also a member.

Patton says the $26,000 offer from the county, which the UVC has not yet signed-off on, is “dead on arrival.”

“We could not make that work,” he says.

According to Phillips, the original understanding between the county and the Veterans Memorial Building Board of Trustees was for the county to subsidize the veterans services operations at the Memorial Building but for them to eventually become financially self-reliant.

Patton, though, says they have no means of generating their own revenue.

“We feel the county should be responsible for [more of] our staffing and operational costs because we don’t have the rental space to off set costs here,” Patton says of the Emeline Avenue facility.

When asked if the current funding offer from the county plus the revenue generated from the rentals at the Memorial Building would be sufficient to off set their operating costs, Patton says “it wouldn’t even be close.”

In 2010 there were about 14,000 veterans in Santa Cruz County, according to the American Community Survey, and today that number could be up to about 20,000, according to Woodson. As these numbers increase as more return from the wars in the Middle East, veterans’ services will need to be operating on all cylinders.

Even though their funding is very low, Patton says the services they offer at Emeline Avenue are more centralized and active than they were at the Veterans Memorial Building prior to closing. He attributes this to the fact that there was so much priority on renting out space at the Memorial Building on the part of the county that the veterans’ services were relegated to the building’s basement.

“What we do here [at Emeline Avenue] never really existed over at Front Street,” says Bill Manich, executive director of Twenty-First Century Vet, which does outreach out of the Emeline building, “except for 40 years ago, right after Vietnam.”

Patton hopes that they can take the way they are operating services at Emeline Avenue and move that to the Memorial Building. And that will require having access to more than the building’s basement.

Veteran Advocate Kaufman, who is contracted by the county, says the way the UVC has negotiated the shortcomings in their budget has distracted them from the main goal of helping as many veterans as possible.

He is concerned that the UVC is placing too much priority on their effort to move back into the Veterans Memorial Building.

“I think it’s a tremendously worthy cause to get the building back, but at the same time, we can provide the resources for veterans, whether it’s here, or there,” Kaufman says.

Kaufman says he was surprised the UVC considered completely closing the doors as an option, even if the funding was short.

“We’re at a point where there are a lot of returning veterans and we need to be ready for them,” he says. “And I think we can figure out a way to provide these services. We just need to get it done.”

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