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Vets want a home
The Princeton American Legion has lost a major battle.
Members of the small veterans organization weren't fighting terrorists or a foreign government that rose up to test their mettle, but county lawmakers over the one thing they say they need to continue their patriotic activities in Princeton, as well as solicit new membership from veterans returning from the war — a veterans hall.
Counties are obligated under Military and Veterans Code section 1262 to build and maintain dedicated veteran memorial halls and buildings for use by veterans organizations, Colusa County officials said Tuesday, but they say money is too tight to replace the Princeton America Legion Hall they condemned in 2006.
Instead, the county plans to designate either the Maxwell American Legion Hall or Colusa Veterans of Foreign Wars Post as Princeton's official site.
"That is not Princeton," said
a devastated Lorie Dowden, of the American Legion Auxiliary. "Many of our members are disabled and going to Colusa or Maxwell would be a hardship."
Dowden's husband, Ernest, is commander of Post No. 98, which was charted in 1918 and signed by President Woodrow Wilson.
The Princeton hall, an 1870s schoolhouse, was dedicated for the American Legion in 1931, around the same time cities and counties across the country built and designated memorial buildings in honor of the veterans of World War I.
The Willows Veterans Memorial building was completed and dedicated in April 1930, and was funded by a tax levy on Glenn County taxpayers and the American Legion. The Colusa Veterans Hall was built for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 2441, which was chartered in 1932.
The Maxwell American Legion Hall building was constructed in 1912, and was purchased by the American Legion Post No. 218 in 1921 through the sale of bonds.
Colusa County condemned Princeton's Legion Hall after a person seated in a chair fell through the floor. Building officials said then that the hall was beyond repair.
Supervisor Denise Carter said Tuesday that county officials have gone over the Military Code many times and are confident the law is on their side.
"The code allows us to substitute another facility," Carter said.
Colusa VFW officials have indicated they would be willing to accommodate the Princeton group. The county plans to talk to the Maxwell group as well, Carter said.
But veterans groups all over the state, since the code's inception, have taken county officials to court for violating what they say is their ability to perform the patriotic responsibilities of their organization.
In 2009, the Glenn County Veterans Council, which includes the Willows American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, successfully sued the Glenn County Board of Supervisors for more access and control of Willows Memorial Hall, as well as better accommodations.
In 1929, Capt. Charles V. Gridley Camp successfully sued the Butte County Board of Supervisors in a similar feud.
In that case, the Board of Supervisors argued that the language of the Military and Veterans Code was permissive, not mandatory.
The Court of Appeals, however, concluded that the Legislature had in mind a double purpose to the code mandating the erection and maintenance of buildings, "to subserve the public interest of the country by providing for the erection of structures where the thought of patriotism might be given wider currency, and at the same time enable organizations of persons who had engaged in hazardous service for their country to meet and aid in keeping alive the principles upon which the republican form of government must rest."
Barbara LaDoucer, of the American Legion Auxiliary, said the members have been meeting at a Princeton school while waiting for the county to fulfill its obligation, but that the school district limits their use.
LaDoucer said the Princeton School District does not allow veterans to hold fundraisers on school grounds due to liability issues.
The Princeton American Legion and Auxiliary works tirelessly to raise money for scholarships, Boys and Girls State, nursing programs, and other causes, LaDoucer said, and needs a facility in their own town to maintain financial support from the community.
Auxiliary members fear fundraising in either Colusa or Maxwell for a Princeton organization would be less successful.
Ladoucer said two previous fundraiser in Colusa failed and, for the first time, the unit will not be able to send two Colusa teens to Boys and Girls State next year.
"We just don't have the money," she said.
The unit will also not be able to continue providing hygiene kits to homeless veterans next year, and may have to reduce the number of "Young Hero," kits to children of soldiers currently deployed.
"I don't think the county understands exactly how much we do," LaDoucer said. "We do a lot."
The American Legion Hall also served as a community center for other organizations and was available to the community for special events, such as wedding and graduations.
Dowden said Princeton veterans feel Colusa officials have reneged on a promise to replace the building with a mobile structure when the old hall was condemned, and that the county had set aside $50,000 for the project.
"That is what we don't understand," Dowden said. "What happened to that money?"
Colusa officials said Tuesday that they would like to replace the Princeton facility, but that they don't have the money.
"I would love to just write a check," said Chairwoman Kim Dolbow Vann, "but it is something I cannot do."
The Princeton veterans have not decided what legal action they may take now that the county said it will designate an out-of-the-area substitute facility sometime in May, but LaDoucer said the Military Code has proven many times to be on the veterans' side, should they decide to rattle their sabers further.