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Disabled Vets Battle City Over Veterans’ Building Fees By MATTHEW ARTZ

Tuesday July 05, 2005

What’s in a name?  

Plenty, for the members of Berkeley’s chapter of Disabled American Veterans, who are being required to pay fees to continue to meet at the Berkeley Veterans’ Building. 

“It’s a slap in the face for sure,” said Ed Harper president of DAV, Post 25, which meets once a month in a 10-by-12-foot Veterans’ Building office. “The veterans’ building is for veterans and it’s been that way since 1928.” 

Not so in Berkeley. The 77-year-old seismically unsafe art-deco building is home to a men’s shelter and homeless service center in its basement, a substance abuse recovery program in its main hall, and several nonprofits, including the Berkeley Historical Society, on the ground floor. 

Housing so many agencies in a city-owned building isn’t cheap. Last year the maintenance and utility bills cost Berkeley roughly $70,000, according to building manager David Poock, and the agencies chipped in a minuscule amount.  

Starting next year, Berkeley wants to change that arrangement. The city is requiring each group, including the DAV, to indemnify the city for potential liability and sign a license agreement paying for a share of maintenance and utility costs. Under the current estimates the veterans would pay $290 per year for maintenance and utilities, while larger groups like Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS), which runs the homeless program, would pay $20,000. 

For years veterans and the city have not seen eye-to-eye over the dilapidated building that Berkeley took over from Alameda County in 1988. But the demand to pay for use of a building built in their honor has taken relations to a new low. 

“The veterans come with the building,” said Mark Chandler, Secretary of Alameda County Veterans Affairs Commission. “The city is treating us like black sheep. There isn’t another jurisdiction I know of that has ever tried to make veterans pay to use a veterans’ building.” 

Chandler claims the city’s demand is illegal. He cites the 1988 agreement transferring ownership of the building from Alameda County to Berkeley, which reads that, “The city will preserve the rights of veterans to continued use of the building for activities protected by the military and veterans code.”  

The state veterans’ code states that cities can charge tenants other than veterans, when those groups don’t “unduly interfere with the reasonable use of the facilities by veterans’ associations.” Yet it doesn’t specify that a city can’t charge veterans or require them to take out insurance to indemnify the city. 

“There are no restrictions on the use of the Veterans’ Building that requires us to give anything for free,” said City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque. 

The city wants the license agreements to codify what has been an informal arrangement with Veterans’ Building tenants. “We don’t have leases with any of them,” said City Manager Phil Kamlarz. As for the veterans, the key issue is their ability to carry insurance so the city won’t be liable in the case of an accident. 

“Right now we’re the deep pocket in case something happens,” Kamlarz said. 

Tom Edwards, past president of the Berkeley Historical Society, said insurance costs his group $500 through an alliance of state historical societies. “If we didn’t have the umbrella group, we probably wouldn’t be able to afford insurance,” he said. 

Harper said the DAV didn’t have money for insurance or rent. The organization, he said, which counts 125 members but typically hosts meetings of 15 people, gets $800 a year from the state to spend on “worthy causes for veterans.” 

“We don’t make a penny and we get barely enough to mail out our monthly meeting notices,” he said. 

Boona Cheema, executive director of BOSS, suggested that the veterans could be insured under the policies of one of the bigger agencies at the veterans’ building or by the city. 

“I think the city should back off,” Cheema said. “I don’t think collecting from nonprofits will solve the city’s budget problems.” 

It’s rare for BOSS and local veterans leaders to be on the same side of a veterans’ building issue. Last year Chandler wrote to city officials and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), lamenting that the building had been turned over to social service agencies, limiting the DAV to their one meeting space and a storage room. 

For decades the building’s ornate first floor auditorium was home to civic galas, according to Ken Cardwell of the Berkeley Historical Society.  

But the building slowly fell into disrepair under the county’s watch and suffered further damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. As a safety precaution, after the earthquake, the city sealed off the second floor of the building because there was no emergency egress. The floor had been assigned to veterans as part of a deal with Berkeley when the city took control of the building. 

After the earthquake, the city turned the building over to social service agencies which needed cheap space. The homeless shelter moved into the basement in 1992 and were later joined by Options Recovery Services, a program for substance abusers, who occupies most of the first floor. 

Restoring the building to its original splendor appears for now to be a long shot. In 2002, the city estimated repairs would cost $12 million, and with the city’s budget still in the red, there is little political support for a bond measure. 

Chandler said the county and other cities have put more resources into their veterans buildings. Oakland recently renovated its building and turned it into a senior center, which, he said, brings in revenues to maintain the building and allows free space for veterans. The county-owned veterans’ building in Fremont, he added, still hosts special events to pay for its maintenance and utility costs. 

Albany’s building has also been upgraded, Chandler said. In 1990, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the local chapter of The Veterans of Foreign Wars moved from Berkeley to Albany. 

Harper said the DAV would be welcome in Albany or could just as easily hold meetings at a member’s house, but they didn’t want to leave. 

“We don’t want Berkeley to have a veterans’ building where veterans have no part of it,” he said. “We don’t want to just come by on holidays to raise the flag.”