A state report alleging mismanaged leases at the Veterans Home of California has the town of Yountville seeking answers about whether its agreement to run the home’s swimming pool is valid – and whether it can or should count on opening the pool for another summer.
The Town Council met Tuesday to ponder the increasing challenges of operating the Yountville Community Pool, as usage and revenue fall and lifeguards become ever scarcer. But a report issued six days earlier by state Auditor Elaine Howle put Yountville’s pool lease at the state-owned Veterans Home under a cloud – and left town leaders urgently seeking answers as to whether it should pay for needed repairs and staffing with its rights to the pool thrown in doubt.
“Do I want to put a major investment of town funding into something that right now is very suspect as to whether it’s going to be ongoing?” asked Town Manager Steve Rogers. “Secondly, we have a potential question about (what to do) if it’s a contract that’s not enforceable and the town doesn’t have liability coverage because we don’t have an agreement.”
The Yountville pool, which the town has operated since the 1980s, is one of several Veterans Home leases targeted in the study Howle released Jan. 30 for not returning enough funds to the state Department of Veterans Affairs and violating California’s five-year limit on such leases. The town and CalVet, which governs the Yountville home and seven others, signed a 20-year pact in 2005 for the town to maintain and repair the swimming center.
Council members worried that trying to run the public pool with a potentially illegal lease could leave Yountville open to lawsuits in case of accidents, without CalVet as a partner and backstop – even as Town Attorney Gary Bell tried to assure them the state auditor cannot kill an existing lease on her own authority.
“If the lease is null and void, what is our exposure?” asked Marita Dorenbecher. “Are we liable for something because the state didn’t execute the lease correctly?”
Auditors found that the Yountville Veterans Home’s managers undercharged tenants such as the Lincoln Theater, Napa Valley Museum and Vintner’s Golf Course for leases on the 600-acre property, missing out on some $610,000 in payments that should have been set aside for CalVet over three fiscal years. The report also criticized the Veterans Home’s agreement with Yountville to operate the pool, for which the town pays the state a dollar a year.
However, town officials rejected any suggestion of a sweetheart deal, pointing to Yountville taking full responsibility for the Veterans Home pool’s upkeep – starting with the $1.3 million it spent in 2006-07 to upgrade it to modern health and safety standards, without which they said the swim center would be unusable today. All told, the town has spent $2.5 million on the on-campus pool during the 14 years of the agreement, according to Mayor John Dunbar.
Without Yountville agreeing to keep up the pool and hire its lifeguards and staff, “the facility would most likely have closed and veterans residing on campus would not have access to use the seasonal swimming pool located on their campus,” town manager Rogers wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to the auditor’s office. “Given this history, the Town does not understand and strongly disagrees with the audit’s finding that the lease agreement ‘does not provide services that fulfill an apparent need of the veteran residents.’”
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The questions about Yountville’s pool lease have appeared as town parks officials battle to cope with declining usage on the one hand, and staffing shortages on the other – all with another $275,300 of maintenance work scheduled for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
During the June-to-September swim season in 2018, Yountville halved operating hours for veterans, seniors and the public, closed the pool on Sundays and eliminated its learn-to-swim program. In addition, a sharp fall-off in out-of-town users has slashed the visitor count from a high of nearly 9,000 to just 5,000 last summer, squeezing revenue, according to parks director Samantha Holland.
With Yountville already recruiting pool staff for the upcoming season, council members promised to seek clarity from the state about its intentions as quickly as possible. New information could lead the council to call a special session ahead of its next scheduled meeting on March 5.
“I can ask questions all day long but at the end of the day, we don’t know whether they want to void it, whether they want a new (lease), whether they want us to operate it – we have no idea,” said Councilmember Jeffrey Durham. “I don’t even know the questions to ask.”
The state auditor’s criticism of Veterans Home leases has aroused pushback from other tenants besides Yountville. The manager of the Lincoln Theater disputed the report’s finding that it doesn’t offer veterans free admission to paid events, and the general manager of Vintner’s Golf Club said no state official had questioned its hosting of hot-air balloon launches – a service the town approved in 2010 but which the auditor decried as a dangerous activity exposing CalVet to liability risk.
Responding to the report’s assertion that the Napa Valley Museum’s annual lease is $146,000 below market value, director Laura Rafaty replied the museum’s lease covers only the land and not its building – for which it spent several million dollars of its own money – and added the museum, where veterans get free admission, is trying to raise hundreds of thousands more for climate-control equipment to preserve artifacts.
“To suggest that the Veterans Home should somehow now receive ‘market rate rent’ for a building it does not own is nonsensical,” Rafaty wrote in a letter to the Napa Valley Register.
Howle’s report is the second audit this decade to allege mishandling of funds reserved for the Yountville Veterans Home. An audit released in October 2013 listed more than $652,000 authors said was squandered on a never-completed adventure park and zip-line course, as well as an on-campus café that was operated on a virtually rent-free, no-bid contract.
Both agreements were written without the consent of CalVet or the state Department of General Services, Howle wrote at the time. The Yountville home’s administrator, Marcella McCormack, retired shortly before the release of the audit, which asserted she neglected her duty to make sure the agreements met state rules and that funds benefited the home’s 800-plus military retiree residents.