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Veterans’ halls search for ways to stay open

Legislators propose aid

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For years, Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion halls have served as gathering spaces for community organizations, hosting everything from scout meetings to parties to fundraisers and blood drives. But when the pandemic struck last year, and community groups could no longer meet in person, veterans’ halls sat empty, while their members struggled to pay their rent, utilities and taxes.

Now, Republicans in the Nassau County Legislature are proposing legislation to use some of the $400 million the county received in the federal government’s American Rescue Act to create a Covid-19 relief fund dedicated to supporting veterans’ organizations, which were not eligible for Boost Nassau County or other business loans during the pandemic. As a result, many hall commanders across the county found it difficult to maintain their buildings over the past year, and some have even received offers from other groups and companies to buy out their halls.

To prevent that from happening, the bill would reimburse veterans’ groups for the money they have lost in the pandemic, and provide them with ongoing relief grants until the state’s Covid restrictions are lifted.

“Unless we act, we are going to lose these facilities,” Richard Nicolello, presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature, said at a news conference outside VFW Post 5253 in Williston Park late last month, describing the halls as “the heart and soul of our communities” and adding, “They are going to have to close their doors.”

Representatives of the VFW’s and American Legion’s national organizations, however, told the Associated Press last month that the number of posts that have been dissolved during the pandemic was at or lower than the number of posts that closed in previous years. Still, both organizations launched emergency grant programs to help their member posts, doling out thousands of dollars to hundreds of posts across the country in recent months to help them cover their costs.

Some have found other ways to stay afloat during the pandemic. In Baldwin, American Legion Post 246 reopened to members late last July, and began renting out the space with social distancing measures in place in September, according to Commander Robert Hare. Business remained slow for months, Hare said, but it “started picking up about a month ago,” and now the facility is making about 75 percent of the revenue it made before the pandemic. In another few months, Hare said, he expects the post to return to its pre-pandemic level of funding.

It has not had to pay for rent, he said, because the organization owns the building, and the members have even declined to take out a loan because they were able to make ends meet. “We would love to get back to 100 percent,” Hare said. “We’re all waiting to get back to normal.”

Members of the Franklin Square VFW Post 2718, meanwhile, have been dipping into the organization’s reserve funds to pay for utilities, and are holding several fundraisers, including an upcoming Mother’s Day plant sale. The post lost roughly $7,500 a month in rental revenue last year, Building President John McManamy told Newsday, and was spending about $1,000 a month on cleaning supplies. McManamy could not be reached for comment as of press time on Monday.

But some veterans’ organizations are still struggling to recoup the money they have lost over the past year, like the Elmont American Legion, which earns most of its revenue by hosting community meetings. It has been closed since Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his “New York on Pause” executive order last year, and as a result, Bill Stegman, the post’s first vice commander, told the Herald last year, the legion was unable to pay for its building’s maintenance or its members’ needs.

Commander Lecia Rodriques-Whyte said she was afraid to rent out its two halls because the legion has many older members, some of whom have pacemakers and could die if they contract Covid-19. “It would devastate me if someone came in and got sick,” Rodriques-Whyte said.

Instead, she said, the legion board has worked closely with its accountant to figure out how to pay the post’s utility bills, and enrolled in a cheaper insurance plan. “We’ve been robbing Peter to pay Paul just to make things work,” Rodriques-Whyte said, but she noted that if the Covid relief bill were to pass in the County Legislature, the legion would be able to pay its bills and have money left over for its operations.

In Williston Park, VFW Post 5253 Commander John Incremona said, the board has had to take out loans to make ends meet, after previously repairing the building. “We need money,” Incremona said at the news conference last month. “We need money fast.”