Change comes after complaints
The office that assists East Baton Rouge Parish veterans has new digs, following complaints about the dilapidated building the city-parish had leased for it for more than three decades.
“It was a long time coming, and we feel very grateful to have this,” said Tony Coleman, a veterans services counselor, of the new office Wednesday — a day before it was set to open to the public.
With windows that let the sun shine in, carpet that isn’t tearing away from the floors and freshly painted walls, the third-floor office at 1755 Florida Blvd. is a far cry from the old location on North Boulevard.
Last month, Department of Veterans Affairs regional manager Earnest Buckner Jr. went to the Metro Council to voice his concerns about the privately owned building that had housed the local office since 1981.
“It’s unacceptable; it’s deplorable; it’s unsafe,” he said.
City leaders said they planned to move the office to another location but gave no timeline. But employees of the veterans services office said they were threatened with eviction from the building, after publicly complaining about conditions at the old site.
“I’m glad the city-parish government stepped up to the plate and made something happen,” said David LaCerte, deputy secretary for the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs. “I’m glad we finally got traction.”
LaCerte said he had several concerns about the old site.
“If we have our own employees painting and scrubbing moldy walls, there’s a problem,” he said.
The building also leaked when it rained, didn’t stay warm in cold weather and had an outdated electrical system that required extension cords or electronic devices would short out.
“Concerns like that are life-safety issues,” LaCerte said.
Under Louisiana law, parishes must provide space for the state Veterans Affairs offices to operate locally.
Buckner told the Metro Council that the veterans unit was considering ceasing operations there out of safety concerns for employees and the veterans they serve.
The Department of Public Works couldn’t make repairs to the leased building but was aware of the concerns, said William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden,
Daniel said the city-parish exercised its right to cancel the lease on North Boulevard and expedite the move following the threats of eviction.
“It had fallen into disrepair,” Coleman said.
Coleman said the new office will help workers do their jobs better. An estimated 500 to 600 veterans visit the office each month.
The office helps veterans secure monetary benefits — often serving in an advocacy role to ensure they get all they are entitled to receive. The assistance the office provides spurs an estimated $54 million in benefits going to the parish’s veterans, LaCerte said.
“A good number who come in aren’t aware of all the benefits,” Coleman said.
Workers assist when veterans need additional medical care, home loans and educational benefits and other services. It often serves as a reference point for veterans who aren’t aware of other programs available.
Many come in when they’ve reached the point where they are too frustrated to continue to try to navigate the complex bureaucratic federal system on their own.
“That’s where we really prove our worth,” Coleman said.
All of the employees are veterans themselves, Coleman said, so there is a special understanding in the office, particularly when facing the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder and other medical issues veterans face upon their return home.
“It’s veterans helping veterans here,” Coleman said. “We can deal with emotions in here — very strong ones.”
Coleman said the office also serves several widows who get dependents benefits.
“It can be very meaningful for them,” he said.
In addition to fresh coats of blue and green paint on the walls, the city-parish replaced the air conditioning in the building before the move and made upgrades to a waiting room, which prominently features an American flag.
“It’s a work in progress, but I think the veterans population can be really proud of it,” Coleman said.