The shuttering of the veterans home here is part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s fiscal blueprint meant to alleviate the financial hit California has taken amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Released on Thursday, Newsom’s revised budget proposed to “initiate the closure” of the Veterans Home of California-Barstow and a one-year delay for realignment at VHC-Chula Vista and Yountville.
If approved, the changes would net state General Fund savings in Fiscal Year 2020-21 of $2.6 million, according to the revised budget. Long-term savings that would result from the Barstow facility’s closure are expected to be $14 million annually.
In total, the governor’s revisions would slash $6.1 billion from the state’s budget. The cuts are part of a plan to cover a $54.3 billion budget deficit caused by plummeting state revenues after a mandatory, statewide stay-at-home order forced most businesses to close and put more than 4.7 million people out of work.
Overall, the $203 billion spending plan is about 5% lower than what lawmakers approved last year.
City officials in Barstow, meanwhile, aren’t ready to give up the facility that was founded in 1996 as the second home for veterans in California and, at the time, the first built in more than 100 years.
“The City of Barstow will write a letter to Gov. Newsom pointing out the necessity of the Barstow Veterans Home,” Barstow Mayor Julie Hackbarth-McIntyre told the Daily Press. “We’ll also encourage our surrounding cities, the County of San Bernardino and local citizens to do the same.”
But a Department of Veterans Affairs letter sent to the “Barstow Veterans Home Family” on Thursday discusses the closure as if it were a foregone conclusion.
In the letter, which was obtained by the Daily Press, CalVet Secretary Vito Imbasciani said, “While this closure will be difficult for all of us, it is not entirely unexpected.”
“The Veterans Home of California Master Plan 2020 detailed that Barstow does not meet the criteria for an ideal veterans home location,” Imbasciani wrote. “The area does not have a large veteran population and the Home routinely has critical vacancies; the home is 90 minutes away from the nearest VA medical center; and among other issues, the lack of local nursing programs or a sizeable workforce makes it difficult to recruit for many positions.”
The master plan, released by CalVet in January, details the overall operation of the eight veterans homes in California. In it, CalVet notes that VHC-Barstow was constructed to expand services to veterans in Southern California. It’s placement in the High Desert, however, “hampers its operations and limits demand for care.”
The home’s very existence is seen as puzzling at times in the plan. A note on page 180 reads, “It is unclear how the location for the Barstow Home was selected. In reviewing the limited records from the selection process, the Barstow area received low scores for proximity to VA care and to veteran communities.”
Former Mojave Water Agency board member Beverly Lowry told the Daily Press in 2018 that, at the behest of the City Council, she served as chair of the committee that worked to bring the home to Barstow.
Former Congressman Jerry Lewis secured federal funding for the project that took five years to secure, according to Lowry.
“We were in competition with 28 major cities in Southern California,” she said in 2018. “Well, we won. It’s just something special, and I put my heart and soul into it.”
Lowry described the home as the “sapphire” in Barstow’s crown. As such, there are those outside city limits who also plan to advocate for its continued operation.
33rd District Assemblyman Jay Obernolte said he will fight against the state’s budget proposal as the vice chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, as well as a member of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and the Budget Conference Committee.
In a statement, Obernolte, R-Big Bear, said it was “unconscionable to balance the budget on the backs of our veterans and even worse to displace the 200 residents who currently call this home.”
“Today, the Gov. announced closure of the Barstow Veterans Home. It’s unconscionable to balance the budget on the backs of our veterans and even worse to displace the 200 residents who currently call this home,” Obernolte tweeted.
Today, the Gov. announced closure of the Barstow Veterans Home. It’s unconscionable to balance the budget on the backs of our veterans and even worse to displace the 200 residents who currently call this home. https://t.co/gMSM0KbA8I
— Asm. Jay Obernolte (@JayObernolte) May 15, 2020
“The Governor may propose the budget, but the Legislature writes it and I will not idly sit by and allow this home to be closed,” Obernolte said in a Thursday statement. “Closing it will only save the state $400,000 in this budget year, but the loss of per-diem paid to the state by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for these residents will cost $3 million per year. That math simply doesn’t add up.”
Obernolte said VHC-Barstow was originally opened due to its unique proximity to multiple military installations, including Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Edwards Air Force Base.
“Our community has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the state, and the support for this home is overwhelming,” Obernolte said. “I am committed to ensuring that this home remains a part of our community.”
Situated on 22 acres, VHC-Barstow is a 400-bed facility that had a 2019 budgeted capacity of 220 beds. In that year, only 190 beds were filled, according to the master plan.
While the plan acknowledged that San Bernardino County has the fifth-largest veteran community in California, it said those veterans “primarily live in and around the county seat and the surrounding metropolitan area.”
According to the plan, “there is no significant veteran community within 50 miles of the Barstow Home,” and CalVet said it struggles to fill even half of the facility’s beds.
The fate of VHC-Barstow now rests in the hands of elected officials. Newsom’s revised budget must be negotiated with the state Legislature by June 15.
© 2020 Daily Press
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.