The Yountville Veterans Home seems to be getting quieter these days.
Hot-air balloons no longer launch from its campus. Yountville residents won’t be sitting poolside this summer after the town balked at renewing a contract for the pool that it’s maintained since the 1980s. Event organizers complain of significant fee increases to use the grounds.
Organizers of Cycle for Sight and Rotary Ride for Veterans, a high-profile cycling fundraiser that’s put on by the Rotary Club of Napa and raises money for veterans, say they were caught off-guard this spring when the California Department of Veterans Affairs, or CalVet, imposed new requirements for insurance and fees to be put in a fund for veteran recreation activities. It was the first time they faced such fees after more than a decade of using a part of the Veterans Home campus for their fundraiser.
“It was pretty much a slap in the face,” said Gary Rose, a Rotary Club member and founder of Cycle for Sight.
This comes after a stinging state audit in January that questioned leases that CalVet allowed at the Yountville campus. State auditors determined that the “mismanagement of the Veterans Home properties has not served the veteran’s best interest,” and some leases did not align with state law and failed to protect the state from liability.
CalVet said officials who work most closely with the issues identified in this report were busy and unavailable for an interview, but spoke via spokesperson Lindsey Sin.
CalVet welcomed the audit’s findings and recognized that there were some issues regarding leases and events at the Yountville home, she said. While the campus is part of Yountville’s community and still plans to work with event organizers on a case-by-case basis, it’s not a space for activities and events.
“We do have to recognize that this is state property and our first mission is to care for our residents,” Sin said.
‘Things have changed for them’
Auditors questioned why CalVet allowed Vintner’s Golf Club to launch hot-air balloons on its lawns. CalVet said the Sacramento headquarters didn’t know about the activity.
“We find CalVet headquarters’ lack of awareness puzzling, given the size and spectacle of the balloon launches,” auditors wrote in the report.
Jason Boldt, general manager of the golf course, said at the time that he sought permission from the town and Vets Home campus a decade ago to allow Napa Valley Balloons to launch there.
The state and Veterans Home told Boldt after the audit that they did not want balloons launching from the property, he said. Balloons stopped launching at the course in early April and Boldt said he was sad to see them go.
“Apparently after 10 years, things have changed for them,” Boldt said.
CalVet determined that allowing hot-air balloons to launch there violated the golf course’s lease, said Sin, who noted that ballooning is an inherently dangerous activity.
Auditors also questioned the lease of the swimming pool to Yountville. The lease did not grant veterans special access over other Yountville residents, did not fully protect the state from liability, and was not properly executed and therefore voidable, the state review said.
In April, the Town of Yountville announced it was pulling out from running the pool. Pool attendance had dropped significantly over the years and Yountville town council members were concerned that reopening the pool on a potentially invalid lease could leave them vulnerable to a lawsuit in case of an accident.
Steve Rogers, Yountville’s town manager, said in a letter to CalVet that continuing with the lease did not make economic sense and would run a $100,000 annual deficit.
CalVet said it’s still unclear whether the pool will reopen because the town didn’t accept its offer to renew a near-identical lease, but is hopeful that someone will come forward to take the lease over, Sin said.
Auditors referenced a lawsuit in their report that stemmed from an incident at a cycling event on the campus. A woman was injured and sued CalVet, though the lawsuit was filed improperly and dismissed, according to the report. The event organizer signed an agreement that shielded the state against claims for damages, but the lawsuit shows the risks of allowing such events on the campus, auditors wrote.
Cycle for Sight organizer Rebecca Kotch said this year’s event was harder to plan and the Rotary Club faced unexpected costs of about $10,000 — $6,000 for insurance, which the Vets Home required this year, $3,000 for a fund that supports recreational activities for Veterans Home residents and a $1,000 security deposit. They had to reprint $1,800 worth of waivers to release the state from liability, she said.
“It was very new this year for us,” Kotch said. “We are always raising money every single year for veterans services.”
CalVet required the additional insurance because it wanted to ensure that the state was protected from a lawsuit in the event of an injury, for example, Sin said. State officials said the $1,000 security deposit has since been refunded.
CalVet initially asked for $8,000 to be put toward recreational activities, but that figure dropped to $3,000 after state Sen. Bill Dodd, a longtime supporter of the event, reached out to CalVet, Kotch said.
Dodd wrote in an email that the campus is an important community resource.
“Obviously, it’s important that activities at the Veterans Home provide a clear benefit to veterans,” he said. “At the same time, we must continue to allow the greater community to engage in popular events on the property ... To the extent we can, we must balance both interests.”
It was never part of their budget to have such a large expense, she said.
“There was moments of high frustration,” she said, adding that they were working with CalVet up until the week before the event.
It’s unclear whether Cycle for Sight will include the Veterans Home in its course next year, Kotch said. This year’s fundraising numbers have not been totaled yet, but last year, Rose of the Rotary Club said they hoped to raise $250,000.
Linda McFeely of Eagle Cycling Club announced last month that Tour of Napa Valley will not be returning to the grounds. She said she’s disappointed that the event will not be held there, but said fees had risen dramatically over the years and she had an especially difficult time communicating with CalVet last year. When a Tour of Napa Valley representative did get a hold of someone, she said it wasn’t good news for the event.
“To be told that our event does not benefit the veterans and that they were taking a new direction was just kind of a shock,” she said.
‘Not part of our mission’
CalVet is taking a new approach to determining what events will be allowed on its campus. Going forward, events should benefit the residents, Sin said.
Still, CalVet is willing to work with some who have had longstanding events on the campus. Cycle for Sight, for example, contributed money to a fund for recreational activities for residents and was still able to take place at the home, she said.
It’s a big undertaking to provide care to residents, manage a staff of about 800 people, and ensure community events are taking place without safety or security issues, Sin said.
“It’s just not part of our mission to do that,” Sin said.
This story has been modified since first posting to clarify CalVet requirements for Cycle4Sight and the reason hot air balloon launches were prohibited from the golf course. It has also been updated to include a quote from Sen. Bill Dodd.