Central Valley

Stanislaus, San Joaquin counties fight over veterans' health care facility

WASHINGTON -- San Joaquin County is lobbying a little louder than Stanislaus County in hopes of landing a new veterans' health care facility.

A morning rally in French Camp on Jan. 30 will be the latest in an escalating public campaign conducted on San Joaquin County's behalf. County officials have been gathering support from top lawmakers, circulating petitions and swelling VA mailboxes with letters of support.

"San Joaquin County has been working with the VA on this for years," Andy Stone, spokesman for Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, said Thursday.

In one particularly vivid stroke, the county enlisted the support of the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Committee chairmen cannot unilaterally order federal agencies to make certain decision, but their words often carry weight.

"French Camp, which is already home to a heavily used outpatient VA clinic, is an ideal site for an expanded treatment center and nursing home," Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, wrote in a Jan. 14 letter co-signed by McNerney and sent to the new secretary of veterans affairs, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki.

But Stanislaus County, too, has been making a case for the new health facilities. Though not always as highly visible as San Joaquin County's push, the campaign by Stanislaus officials is rooted in what their supporters call a merit-based approach. They have not matched the 2,000-plus letters and notes of support touted by San Joaquin County, and they do not have any public rallies planned.

Instead, Stanislaus County champions insist that their location would work better for the veterans and health professionals who would use it.

"It makes sense to have it a little bit more centrally located," said Spencer Pederson, spokesman for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa.

Pederson said Radanovich was holding off on writing a letter on Stanislaus County's behalf until the Obama administration took office. He said he expects Radanovich's office to send Shinseki a letter within the next few days.

"We are thrilled at the concept of a veterans facility coming to the San Joaquin Valley, that's the most important thing," Stanislaus County Chief Operating Officer Patty Hill Thomas said, and "we've tried really hard to be responsive to (the VA's) questions."

The congressman whose district includes San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, says either site would be fine.

"Both San Joaquin and Stanislaus County are deserving," Cardoza's press secretary Mike Jensen said Thursday, citing the grueling commute San Joaquin Valley veterans now must make to Palo Alto for some services.

The intercounty competition is over a 200-bed nursing home expected to span 80,000 square feet, and an additional outpatient facility expected to be about 60,000 square feet.

San Joaquin County is offering eight acres next to San Joaquin General Hospital in French Camp. The county would charge the federal government $1 for the property and would provide help with financing and construction.

Stanislaus County has offered to donate a 15-acre site south of Modesto, near the county's Public Safety Center at Service and Crows Landing roads.

Both counties stress their proximity to veterans. San Joaquin County was home to an estimated 44,426 veterans, as of the 2000 Census, while Stanislaus County was home to an estimated 32,214 veterans. Both counties also stress convenience, including access to Interstate 5 and Highway 99, and both stress what officials call unique benefits.

A consulting firm, ECG Management Consultants, has been studying potential sites since December, and a decision is expected in February.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.