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Orange County Supervisors are expected to boost efforts to build a veterans cemetery in Anaheim Hills by $20 million at their upcoming Tuesday meeting.

But when the funding was originally announced, there was a critical missing piece of information that’s usually included in spending items: where the money would come from.

This week, in response to questions from Voice of OC, officials said the money would come from the county’s unrestricted dollars, known as the general fund.

County finance records show the county is expected to have $762 million in its general fund, a large majority of which is the county’s emergency reserves it would tap into during economic downturns.

About $25 million of the general fund is for “contingencies” – meaning that’s the portion of the fund that’s not already set aside for emergency reserves or other specific designated uses.

County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson didn’t return messages over the past two days asking which category of general fund money the $20million is coming from.

The Anaheim site has received full-throated support from all five county supervisors.

Two veterans sit in the back of a jeep during a tour of the Gypsum Canyon proposed veterans cemetery site, which rests between the 91 and 241 toll road. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“Our Veterans and their families need a place for Veterans to rest here in Orange County,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley, who was the only supervisor to return messages for comment.

“It’s imperative that we work together to make sure the planning for the building of [this] veterans cemetery begins immediately. They’ve waited long enough.”

The $20 million county contribution – which is up for an approval vote next Tuesday by county supervisors – got a boost this week from Assemblyman Steven Choi (R-Irvine), who represents the newer proposed site as well as the previously proposed site in Irvine.

“I urge the Board of Supervisors to approve this budget request,” Choi wrote in a letter to supervisors this week.

Choi added that he’s requested $5 million in the state budget for the veterans cemetery, backed by a wide range of OC’s state legislative delegation.

And he said he’s working on getting the state to redirect $25 million that was previously designated for one of the two Irvine sites to instead go towards the Anaheim site.

“We’re not hitting any speed bumps. We’re moving forward – and we’re not looking back,” said Nick Berardino, president of the Veterans Alliance of Orange County, in an interview this week.

“It’s time to look forward. And the momentum for this site is growing every day. And it’s robust and it’s vigorous and it’s continuing,” he added. “We’re thankful to the legislators who are participating” to make this a reality.

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Earlier this week, Anaheim City Council members unanimously voted to reaffirm their support for the proposed site in their city.

“Serving our country and making the ultimate sacrifice is one of the most honorable acts anyone can do,” said Council Member Avelino Valencia.

“There are still many unanswered questions about how the cemetery could come to fruition at the Gypsum Canyon site,” he added, such as the cost, plans and federal recognition.

“I will say this, I am feeling very optimistic,” said Councilman Jordan Brandman.

Councilman Jose Moreno wondered when the cemetery will actually be built, or if politics will get in the way — given the years of promises from politicians that have yet to come to fruition.

“There’s a lot of politicians up there [at the Anaheim site] and I remember a couple years ago at the Strawberry Fields [site in Irvine] there was a lot of politicians up there as well,” Moreno said. 

Mayor Harry Sidhu promised veterans there won’t be any political roadblocks from the city council.

“I tell you what, there won’t be any politics in Anaheim. I assure you that,” Sidhu said.

The Anaheim proposal is the latest move since supervisors this month publicly doubled down on their support of the cemetery site in Gypsum Canyon just east of Anaheim Hills, which would move the planned site from former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine.

The $20 million proposal – which has support from supervisors Don Wagner and Andrew Do – was revealed in a one-sentence agenda item posted a week ago Friday on page two of the board’s supplemental agenda for the July 27 meeting.

The potential site is off the 91 Freeway, on a plot of county owned land already set to become a public cemetery operated by the Orange County Cemetery District.

The coalition garnered support from a host of different veterans groups in Orange County, including every Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the county and over half a dozen American Legion posts. 

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The effort also picked up signatures from a wide variety of county political figures, including Congressman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), State Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), and county supervisors Do, Wagner and Katrina Foley. 

The organizing was spearheaded by Berardino, the former general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, and other leaders like Bill Cook, one of the veteran’s alliance board members and chair of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation.

Both recently announced a coalition of veterans were abandoning any site selection in Irvine ahead of an Irvine City Council vote between two potential sites in that city.

In Irvine, there have been two competing proposed sites for the cemetery on the former Marine base.

One of the sites sits at the northern edge of the Great Park, holding onto an air traffic control tower and old hangars, while the other sits on land zoned to become a golf course.

Either site would have space for roughly 200,000 veterans, according to a March presentation from the California Department of Veterans Affairs. The golf course site is expected to cost $74.3 million to build, while the hangar site is estimated at $110 million.

Earlier this month, state Sen. Tom Umberg shelved a bill that would have designated an Irvine site for state funding as a veterans cemetery, saying he wanted to make sure supporters of the Gypsum Canyon site have an “opportunity to demonstrate viability.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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