Almost exactly one year has passed since Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, announced at a local news conference that a new Department of Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic would be built in northwest Bakersfield.
The lease had been awarded by the VA to San Diego-based SASD to construct a $40 million facility near Olive and Knudsen drives.
Congress had authorized the construction of a new facility nine years ago, so the announcement was met with relief and celebration from many local veterans, along with frustration that it had taken so long.
Now that celebration appears to have been premature.
After repeated questions regarding the current status of the outpatient clinic, VA spokesman Damian McGee strongly suggested in an email that the plan announced last year was dead.
"At this point, VA has begun moving forward with a new procurement on an expedited basis," McGee said.
Asked if that means last year's announcement of a lease with SASD is null and void, McGee answered in the affirmative.
"Yes," he said. "VA terminated the lease award to SASD."
Those words came as a shock to some.
U.S. Marine veteran Dick Taylor, the former director of the Kern County Veterans Service Department and a longtime veterans advocate, was stunned when he was told by a reporter Friday evening about the revelation.
"For crying out loud," he said. "Why?"
It reminded him, he said, of the old Peanuts comic strip gag where Charlie Brown tries to kick a football held by Lucy, but as he hurtles toward his target, Lucy yanks the ball up and out of the way, resulting in Charlie Brown flying through the air and landing flat on his back. Again.
"I believe (VA) Secretary Wilkie needs to immediately send a compelling letter with a detailed explanation to Congressman McCarthy and the director of the Kern County Veterans Service Department, who represents the over 43,000 veterans who call Kern County home," Taylor said. "This delay is unacceptable and the VA at the federal level needs to take immediate steps to resolve this. The U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs owes our men and women who have served honorably nothing less."
The long-awaited state-of-the-art facility was slated to replace the community-based outpatient clinic on Westwind Drive. But one year after the announcement, no visible work had begun at the development site.
McCarthy was flanked by veterans, veteran advocates and local politicians when he made the announcement last October. SASD Development Group LLC was approved to construct a new 30,100-square-foot clinic.
Last month, McCarthy testified before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs in order to call for the timely completion of the project. Congress, he said, authorized the construction of 15 new facilities in 2010, including a new clinic in Bakersfield. The local clinic is the only project that remains stalled.
But the dollar figures in the House Minority Leader's remarks, aimed at the owners of the current clinic on Westwind, were in error. In videotaped testimony, McCarthy said monthly rent the VA is paying to Progress for Bakersfield Veterans, LLC, the current holder of the lease, is $2 million.
"This clinic would provide veterans with expanded mental health and… [women’s health care] services," McCarthy testified. "Unfortunately, this award has become subject to…dilatory protests. And you know who’s protesting? The current owner of the land where the current clinic is that’s outdated. One after another after another he protests, because if he protests, there’s a dirty little secret — he gets rewarded. He protests — so the veterans do not get a new facility, but you know what he gets in his? They double his lease. They double his lease payment.
"The VA was paying him $1 million a month, but now that the new center is delayed he gets $2 million a month. And you know who’s protesting? He’s protesting. So because he protests, he doubles his rent. And because he doubles his rent, the veterans are denied a new facility…Our own law rewards somebody stopping our veterans from having their own clinic and actually puts money in their pocket.
"Enough is enough," McCarthy said.
A million dollars a month sounded like an outrageous amount for the VA to pay. Two million sounded ridiculous.
So The Californian asked.
McGee, who is deputy director of the VA's Los Angeles Regional Office of Public Affairs, said in an email that, since July 1, the monthly lease paid by the VA for the clinic is $172,178.
Previous to July, it was $156,579.
"The monthly rent increases by 10 percent on each subsequent six-month anniversary and subject to CPI (Consumer Price Index) adjustment," McGee said.
In his remarks before the committee, McCarthy had also referred to the old clinic as "cramped," but according to McGee, current square footage of the Bakersfield clinic is 34,560, while the new clinic is expected to have 30,100 square feet of space.
McCarthy was correct, however, about why construction is on hold.
"VA awarded this contract in October 2018 and stands ready to move forward as soon as possible," McGee said of the stalled work, "but Progress for Bakersfield Veterans LLC has filed a protest, making it impossible for VA to do so."
Brittany Martinez, a spokeswoman for McCarthy's office, responded to a reporter's questions about the apparent discrepancy in the lease costs as cited by the Minority Leader.
"As it turns out, when we reached back out to the VA they informed us that the rent for the clinic is in fact the approximate $172,000 per month, as you mentioned," Martinez said in an email. "In our prior conversations with the VA, they miscommunicated the annual lease for the monthly lease."
Martinez acknowledged the annual lease hadn't doubled since the new clinic was announced one year ago.
"I would also like to point out that the rent has still doubled since (Fiscal Year 2014) and the landlord’s protesting does not provide our veterans with a new facility, but it does benefit him," she said.
As to the matter of square footage, Martinez said the new venue will be a state of the art facility, with improved technology and will utilize space more efficiently.
"The current clinic has been around for nearly three decades," she said, "and our veterans deserve the same services that civilians get."
Martinez also noted that McCarthy's staff would correct the Congressman's written statement in the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs’ hearing record.
Allen Hubsch, a partner with Progress for Bakersfield Veterans, said they protested because VA admitted they didn't receive a fair shake in the clinic selection process.
"Progress for Bakersfield Veterans is committed to serving veterans," Hubsch said in an email. "Unfortunately, the VA has told some whoppers, and not just about rent.
"The VA did not disclose that the VA actually plans to build a smaller clinic than the existing clinic, not bigger. The VA did not disclose that we were vindicated in our protests," he said.
The VA admitted to watchdog agencies that it failed to properly evaluate Progress for Bakersfield Veterans' offer to renovate the existing facility, Hubsch said. After that, the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in and independently determined that VA had wrongfully awarded the bid to SASD.
"We have been offering a complete renovation of the existing clinic to VA for more than 10 years now, from top to bottom, with a modern, efficient layout and all the latest technology and equipment," he said. "A renovation could be done in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost. Veterans deserve a state of the art clinic now. A complete renovation of the existing clinic is the answer."
Military veteran Randall Dickow, a longtime local advocate for veterans rights and services, said he's at the point that he just wants it done.
"As the one who said 'Get 'er done,' I just want to see it actually gets done," he said. "Our vets need this."
Taylor is also primed for action.
"I would like someone from the VA's Office of Construction and Facilities Management to fly to Bakersfield to explain in detail how they intend to resolve this," he said. "If it's something else, like a contractor issue then the VA needs to explain that as well.
"I will believe it when they unlock the front doors and the first veteran walks into a new VA clinic to receive medical treatment."