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New Homes For California Veterans Sit Empty As Taxpayers Foot Bill

FRESNO (CBS 5) -- Almost 2 million veterans live in California, more than in any other state. But there are only six state-run homes for them, and only one in Northern California. Two homes that were set to open are sitting empty, with taxpayers paying for upkeep.

Korean War veteran Charlie Waters knows he's one of the lucky ones. He has his military honors, a family and a home.

But he knows many other veterans don't have anyone to take care of them. Waters went on a mission, to give other vets a place to call home.

"First of all, we wanted a livable area, not like a warehouse," he said.

For the last ten years, Waters worked with city planners and architects to design the perfect place.

Thanks to state bond money and a federal grant, his vision is now a reality: A brand new home for veterans in Fresno.

CBS 5 recently went on a tour of the home. It's a virtual village of 240,000 square feet, with 300 single rooms, private bathrooms, and landscaped outdoor space, just like Waters dreamed it.

"We even have bocce ball, a putting area, and little areas where they can go out and sit on benches around bushes and trees," he said.

For Rudy Giannoni, a decorated World War II veteran who survived the German Black Death March, it's a dream come true. "I'm reaching 90 and who knows what is going to happen in the near future," he said.

Giannoni signed up to move into the new facility. But right now, he can't, even though there is plenty of room. In fact, no one is living in the home at all.

"We have to look at the budget reality," said J.P. Tremblay of the California Department of Veterans Affairs. "The governor was looking at an $18 billion deficit. Every department in the state of California took a cut."

Tremblay said the cuts are the reason why the Fresno home, and another brand new facility in Redding, will have to stay empty for another year.

"If everything goes as planned and we get all the hiring done and all of that we are looking at probably the fall of 2013," he said.

Yet Gov. Jerry Brown set aside $4.2 million in this year's budget to keep the two empty homes running. "There will be the ongoing maintenance budget operations, electricity bills and staff," Tremblay said.

Tremblay estimates the tab for keeping the homes clean, lit and air conditioned is about $280,000 a month. It's something that shocks veterans, including Giannoni. "Why can't they put some furnishings in there so the veterans can go in there and live in there the way they should be?" he said.

Waters said, "It doesn't make any sense. If they were not going to open it, why did they allow your money and my money, our taxpayer money to go into building a facility of that nature and just have it sit there?"

Tremblay said the Department of Veterans Affairs is doing the best it can. "If somebody is in crisis and needs care right now, we will work to get them into one of the veterans' homes that we have in the state of California. We have six other homes, operational and taking in residents," he said.

But the only homes with space are in Southern California.

"We have a home here that is all finished, all complete. We don't want to have our families have to travel all the way to Southern California to see us," said Giannoni.

Waters said, "It's just totally unfair."

Making matters worse, once the Fresno home opens next fall, the state said it will only be accepting about 8 veterans a month. At that rate, the home won't be completely full for at least another three years.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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