One veterans representative likened the basement to a dungeon.
BY MARY GRZEBIENIAK
MERCER, Pa. -- Unhappy about county commissioners' plan to move the Mercer County Department of Veterans Affairs from the main courthouse floor to the basement, about 40 veterans packed commissioners' chambers Thursday.
Veterans want to keep the office where it is, on the main floor just inside the courthouse front entrance.
Lee Giardina of Hermitage said he received a letter from county Commissioner Olivia Lazor, stating the space the office now occupies is larger than will be justified by projected future needs, according to a recent study by a space utilization expert.
But Giardina said he goes to the veterans office several times per year and that far from being too large, it seemed "pretty crowded to me."
Commissioner Kenneth Seamans said another reason for the planned move is that the current veterans office is not accessible to the courthouse's one disabled-accessible restroom, which is in the basement.
Giardina said he thinks all the courthouse restrooms should be accessible to wheelchairs.
Lazor said it is impossible to make the other restrooms handicapped accessible because of the historical nature of the courthouse.
She said another problem in the current veterans' office is lack of seating space for people waiting to see the director. She said they end up waiting in the hall in order to preserve the confidentiality of those sharing personal information with the director. In the new office, she said, a seating area will be provided for those waiting.
She added that accessibility of the office to emergency exits is also a consideration.
Seamans noted that there are four handicapped-parking spaces right outside the basement door. He said veterans may consider the basement as a lesser-quality area, but said it will be improved once the courthouse restoration project is complete.
"We are trying to find enough space for everyone," Lazor said. "We are trying to give everyone their fair share."
After the meeting, Wayne Stratos, representative to the county veterans advisory council from the Mercer County Vietnam Era Veterans Association Inc., said that in planning for future needs, commissioners should consider the large of number of military personnel on active duty now -- and the fact that they will swell the numbers of veterans groups in the future.
He noted that the planned move to the basement "seems like they are going to put us in the dungeon." He said if privacy is a concern, a cubicle could be provided in the current office.
Commissioners have not yet designated a specific area of the basement for the veterans office. Several offices are there already, including the commissioners' meeting room.
They did reiterate that the new director of the veterans office as well as an assistant's position will remain full-time posts. Commissioners have narrowed applicants for the post to seven and will interview Tuesday for that position. The current director, James Smartz, will retire June 30.
Three members of the veterans advisory council will be allowed to sit in on the interviews.