Veterans Affairs, St. Johns County at odds over clinic

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Dozens of veterans showed up to a town hall meeting Thursday in St. Augustine to voice concerns over the possibility of a gap in medical services if the current outpatient clinic on U.S. 1 South closes before a new location is opened.

Three year ago, St. Johns County sold the property the current Veterans Outpatient Clinic sits on to Lowe's Home Improvement. The county was hoping the Veterans Affairs' office would relocate the clinic to the county's new state-of-the-art facility on San Sebastian View, near the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office.

The county was denied, but a new location wasn't considered by the VA until recently. And that delay has many veterans angry.

At Thursday's meeting, officials did not say what it's taking so long, nor did they give any details about where the new facility could be located.

VA officials said they turned down the county's offer for two reasons.

"One, it was outside the delineated area. And the second one, it was partially half in, half out of the 100-year flood plan," said Nick Ross, Gainesville Veterans Affairs Office official. "There's a regulation in the VA. Let me finish (veteran yelling) -- actually, you can look at the map, go to the FEMA website, go to where their facility is and you will see that it is."

But Jerry Cameron, the assistant county administrator for community services in St. Johns County, said the county spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix the flood zone issue, and he said the other reason isn't a valid excuse.

"They have drawn a new ring for the interim space that goes all the way to the World Golf Village," Cameron said. "That was arbitrary to start with, and to draw that northern light three blocks south of the county's state-of-the-art facility just to exclude us was unconscionable."

VA officials say local veterans have nothing to worry about, and that they are working on an interim space. But Bill Dudley, chairman of the Veterans Council for St. Johns County, said taxpayers will be fronting the rent. He said if the clinic stays where it's at past March, taxpayers would also be on the hook for whatever fines Lowe's charges.

"It's a large waste of money," Dudley said. "We're talking about $53,000 a month for the first six months, going to a $100,000 a month if they stay in the past six months. That's a large waste of taxpayer money, especially when the VA has had over four years to plan for this move."

There are more than 20,000 veterans in St. Johns County. More than 5,000 of them go to the outpatient clinic.