Official: Baton Rouge VA office deplorable, unsafe

When veterans in East Baton Rouge Parish need help navigating the complex bureaucratic system of services available to them, they head to an office off North Boulevard that leaks when it rains, has mold and doesn’t get warm when it’s cold outside. Officials say the electrical system is outdated, so computers and other devices sometimes short out.

“It’s unacceptable; it’s deplorable; it’s unsafe,” said Earnest Buckner Jr., regional manager for the state Department of Veterans Affairs. “It’s still leaking — it has not been fixed. We have to put trashcans out to collect the water.”

Under Louisiana law, parishes must provide space for the state Veterans Affairs offices to operate locally. Buckner recently complained to the Metro Council that East Baton Rouge Parish isn’t providing a suitable space, and the veterans unit has been considering ceasing operations there out of safety concerns for employees and the veterans they serve. He estimated that the office serves about 650 veterans per month.

“We’re dealing with a lot of issues over there. It doesn’t have adequate locks on the building, and there’s tape on the carpet,” Buckner said. “It’s not safe for our employees.”

The local office is a leased space in a privately owned building. Buckner said Veterans Affairs has been located there since 1981 and hasn’t been renovated since.

William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said that means the Department of Public Works can’t make repairs to the building. He said officials plan to move the veterans unit to a city-parish-owned building on Florida Boulevard that also houses the human resources office, but he couldn’t give an official timeline for when the move may happen.

“We have a space problem in the parish, and we’ve been diligently trying to move people around,” Daniel said. “We will be moving them as soon as possible, but we’ve got to finish some other projects first. We will take care of (the veterans office).”

But Buckner said the office has been waiting nearly three years for something to be done.

“We’ve been getting promises back and forth, everyone saying we’re going to do something,” he said.

Metro Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said she wasn’t aware of the issues before Buckner took his concerns to a recent council meeting.

“It should not have taken three years for this to get on an agenda to come before this body. That’s the bottom line,” she said.

Buckner said he has gone back and forth with DPW trying to determine a timeline. Most recently, he was told to pack the office because it would be moved to a new home by the end of 2013, but that didn’t happen.

“I don’t think this is the right message that we are sending to our veterans,” he said. “People come to the office and say, ‘Who did you guys upset to be housed in this building?’ ”

Daniel described the issue as “troubling.”

“It’s been difficult for the veterans,” Daniel said. “We certainly regret any problems that they have.”

Holden said his administration has been dedicated to veterans services, including efforts to address post-traumatic stress disorder and homelessness among veterans.

“That commitment is alive and well, and we will continue to do more,” Holden said. “We do not dishonor the veterans.”