MOORLACH UPDATE — Veterans Cemetery — March 25, 2019

My not signing a letter concerning the potential Veterans cemetery at the Great Park was mentioned in the Voice of OC column below. I warned five years ago that this would be a long-term endeavor (see MOORLACH UPDATE — Bicycle Safety — August 26, 2014).

I explained my concerns about the Department of Veterans Affairs back then in great detail (see MOORLACH UPDATE — You’re Being Political — April 9, 2014).

My parents survived Nazi occupation in the Netherlands during World War II. So I am very proud of our veterans who served in the European war zone and liberated Holland. I would not be alive today if not for the sacrifices that generation made. Consequently, I am a big supporter of veterans. Period.

That being said, the proposal to place a Veterans Cemetery at the Great Park has been an interesting effort. From a parochial standpoint, this piece of real estate is located in my Senate District and Steven Choi’s Assembly District. So it’s always awkward when legislators from other areas decide to unilaterally overstep their jurisdictions. Especially when Assemblyman Choi is the former Mayor of the city of Irvine.

Set aside the awkwardness, I have been stating for five years that this should not be a political football. It should be realistic and achievable. Period.

The Orange County Cemetery District may be part of the solution. I’m not so sure that the California Department of Veterans Affairs should be, as economic cycles are not good to this agency. But, if my colleagues are concerned about the cemetery, then let’s form a Blue Ribbon Committee and get things done.

In the meantime, I wrote the following letter to CalVet in January of 2015 to determine my own comfort level:

Secretary Vito Imbasciani, MD

Department of Veterans Affairs

P.O. Box 942895

Sacramento, CA 94295

Dear Secretary Imbasciani:

I respectfully write to you concerning the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) and its ability to oversee and manage funds appropriated for our California Veterans Cemeteries. Recent inquiries by my staff to both CalVet and the Department of Finance concerning the financing of these cemeteries resulted were less than sufficient. While I had intended to ask the Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC) approve an audit to examine CalVet finances related to the cemeteries, I thought it would be helpful to formally inquire with you first.

For context, with the national Veteran’s Administration scandals over the treatments of our veterans in their hospitals, it gave me pause to read the Little Hoover Commission’s letter dated December 8, 2015 (included) which outlines CalVet’s systematic infrastructure and bureaucratic issues that impair its overall operations, “failing to provide the safe and dignified living environment that California veterans deserve.” During a December 11, 2015 legislative briefing at the State Capitol that Keith Boylan, Deputy Secretary of CalVet, declared the Yountville Veteran Home was their “crowning jewel.” As has been demonstrated by various reports, if maintenance efforts are failing at the best of our veteran homes to assist the living, what is happening at the other California facilities, especially the cemeteries under CalVet jurisdiction to honor the dead? If our veteran homes are not being maintained, how does CalVet properly prioritize and maintain the final resting place of the men, women and their families who have served our country?

With the expansion of regional California Veterans Cemeteries, including the Monterey site currently under construction as well as the Southern California Veterans Cemetery to be located at the Great Park in the City of Irvine as proposed in Assembly Bill 1453 (Quirk-Silva, 2014), I would like more information on the following issues:

  • What is the process for establishing a financing plan that provides for receiving and establishing endowments for Veteran Cemeteries so that they may be well maintained in perpetuity? Is there an endowment process established and is it consistent among the various cemeteries? How are the funds managed?
  • Specifically, do the burial benefits – which include gravesites for casket or cremation remains, headstones or markers, opening and closing of the graves, and continued perpetual care – actually and adequately cover the long-term cost of maintaining the endowment for any or all of the CalVet cemeteries?
  • How has the $6.8 million federal grant awarded for building the California Central Coast Veterans Cemetery been spent? For what were these funds used?
  • Per AB 1453, the legislature created the Southern California Veterans Cemetery Master Development Fund (SCVCMDF). The legislation stipulates that CalVet will “apply for Veterans Cemetery Grants Program of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs for a grant of not more than 100% of the estimated cost for designing, developing, constructing, and equipping the cemetery.” With the SCVCMDF and other federal funding, is there enough funding to adequately maintain the cemetery in perpetuity?
  • How many of the Veteran Cemeteries are in current need of repair and maintenance? What is the extent of the needed repairs or maintenance, including the estimated associated costs? What is CalVet’s process for Veteran Cemetery improvements?
  • In 2013, the state budget authorized $153,000 to Yountville Cemetery and the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in Igo for upgrades. How were those funds utilized? Are these funds sufficient to also deal with continued maintenance needs?
  • What is CalVet doing to ensure Veteran Cemeteries are properly maintained in the future?
  • Has CalVet made a decision to forego or delay replacement or repair of items in any of the California Veterans Cemeteries when funding has been available?
  • Who is currently responsible for CalVet cemetery oversight? Is there someone appointed to the position of Assistant Deputy Secretary for Veterans Outreach, Memorials, and Cemeteries, as listed by the State Personnel Board on November 19, 2015? If not, when does CalVet expect that position to be filled?
  • What responsibility is placed on the Local Interagency Network Coordinators (LINC) – which serve as both informational conduits to the community and feedback resources for CalVet, as well as bridging the gap between CalVet and the federal, state, county, and nongovernment agencies that provide services to our state’s nearly 2 million veterans – to provide maintenance of Veteran Cemeteries?

After sending the letter, members of CalVet’s staff dropped by for a visit with my Capitol staff, but no formal written response was received.

Hopefully this will help you understand why I elected to layoff on signing the letter to the City of Irvine. As the Senator for the Great Park, I am more than happy to assist on something concrete, funded and dignified; showing the due respect our nation’s Veterans deserve. Period.

Santana: OC State Lawmakers Jump Back Into The Fight For a Veterans Cemetery

By Norberto Santana Jr.NORBERTO SANTANA JR.

HTTPS://VOICEOFOC.ORG/2019/03/SANTANA-OC-STATE-LAWMAKERS-JUMP-BACK-INTO-THE-FIGHT-FOR-A-VETERANS-CEMETERY/

Democratic State Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva is leading a bipartisan coalition of OC state lawmakers that want the state government to take over development of the veterans’ cemetery in Irvine.

Quirk Silva, along with five state assembly members from Orange County, late last week sent a joint letter to Irvine City Council members calling on them to essentially give the state ownership over a site in Irvine at the former Marine Air Base at El Toro slated for a Orange County veterans’ cemetery.

“On March 11, 2014, the Irvine City Council by an unanimous vote designated the Amended and Restated Development Agreement (ARDA) Site at the Great Park “as the best possible site” for a Southern California Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery.

We ask that you continue to support this shared goal by conveying this particular property to the state,” wrote Quirk Silva in a letter co-signed by Democratic State Assembly members Tom Daly (69 AD) and Tom Umberg (34-SD) and Republicans Tyler Diep (72 AD), William Brough (73 AD) and Phillip Chen (55 –AD).

While council members long ago dedicated the 125-acre site near the heart of the old base for a veterans’ cemetery, the project has been mired and ultimately delayed, in the mud of local politics.

After local developers voiced concerns over the location of the cemetery, largely because of Feng Shui concerns from Asian real estate clients, a debate emerged amongst local politicians over how to re-locate the veterans’ site and accommodate all sides.

Not easy. Not even likely.

Local elections in 2018 were dominated by an intense battle over a proposal to swap the original site for a similarly-sized land tract near the interchange between the 405 and 5 freeways, called the Strawberry Fields.

Voters rejected that plan handily last summer.

Afterwards, another plan emerged to use a nearby golf course tract instead of the designated land (the ARDA site). Irvine planning commissioners recently endorsed this option on a 4-1 margin.

Meanwhile, county supervisors offered an option of their own this past summer, offering the potential of developing a county veterans cemetery – alongside a public civilian cemetery – on donated land from the Irvine Company, near the intersection of the 91 freeway and 241 toll road.

Unlike any Irvine project, the county option has the full backing of the dais that can authorize it, in this case the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Former Irvine Mayor Don Wagner – who just won a special election this month onto the board of supervisors – will likely soon impact that debate.

In Irvine, Wagner prevented former City Councilman Jeff Lalloway from offering a motion moving forward with the original ARDA site last summer – after the loss of the Strawberry Fields election – instead calling for traffic and environmental reviews on the original site with no date set for action.

A June 2016 study of the ARDA site conducted by the Los Angeles-based Owen Group for the California Department of General Services priced the first phase of development at $78 million, including nearly $40 million in demolition and cleanup costs.

The Owen report notes that more soil studies should be conducted on the ARDA site and if toxic soil were to be found, the cost to clean it up would increase the price dramatically. The report does not give an estimate on soil remediation, but does say if enough contamination is found, the site should be excavated eight to 10 feet in an effort to remove the contamination.

Quirk Silva years back did secure $5 million from the legislature toward the development of a veterans’ cemetery during a tough election campaign in 2014 that featured the support of then-Gov. Jerry Brown and a supermajority hanging in the balance.

To date, state leaders have largely stayed on the sidelines in Irvine’s longstanding debate about the location of the regional veterans cemetery.

That may have changed.

“History demonstrates that the State Legislature supports a Southern California Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery,” reads the state legislators’ March 21 letter.

“Previous legislation, supported by the City, AB 1453 (Quirk-Silva, Statutes of 2014) selected the ARDA Site and allocated $4.5 million to a Master Development Fund. This measure received unanimous and bipartisan support.”

The letter essentially calls on Irvine city council members to put up or shut up.

“Today, we are ready to work with State and Federal officials to secure funding for the Southern California Veterans Memorial Park and Cemetery. We ask that you stand by your previous commitment to provide a resting place for California’s veterans at the ARDA site.”

There are some odd names missing from the state legislators’ letter – such as Republicans Steven Choi from Irvine or State Senators like John Moorlach or Pat Bates.

So it’s hard to know how deep the support for this proposal runs.

I reached out to Quirk Silva but mainly got a quote through an official spokesman.

“My colleagues and I felt that our bill needed a location and we wanted the City of Irvine’s Council to be aware that there is support for the original ARDA site,” said Quirk-Silva though her spokesman.

I also reached out this weekend to Nick Berardino, President of VALOR (Veterans Alliance of Orange County), who has been advocating for a veterans’ cemetery for years, for his take.

Berardino – an old veteran of many a legislative trench over the years – is, as always, following the money.

“We are excited that the legislature is poised to support the veterans cemetery and impressed that the Orange County delegation is able to secure the funding in this years budget.”

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