Financial stress and uncertain future facing American Legion Post 31

PADUCAH, KY – American Legion Post 31 has helped veterans, active duty military members, and their families in Paducah since 1919. Now, more than 100 years later, their building is up for sale. In three years, almost 200 members decided to leave the post. That’s money not coming in. On top of that, leaders say debt is all but crushing the chapter.

Through some of the Legion’s tax documents from the past four years, most of their money now is going to debt. According to their tax returns (2015 and 2013 ), their debt increased by more than $130,000 in two years. They owe more than $7500 in back taxes, and more than $300,000 on their mortgage.

A charity watchdog group says two-thirds of every donation that comes in should go directly to that charity’s mission, and the rest should go to taxes, employee salary, utilities. Leaders say mistakes were made along the way, but that won’t stop them from trying to help veterans and their families.

There’s freshly turned dirt on the family plot, but the memories are just as fresh. Mary Helen Marquess’ husband of 70 years, Carl Marquess Sr., died in October.m“If you knew him very long to talk to, he told you once a marine, always a marine,” she says.

It was the American Legion who helped her honor his wishes with a military funeral. An honor guard presented the colors, a flag was draped over his coffin, and rifles fired a salute. “The way they stood out there in the rain just like the sun was shining,” she recalls.

Mary Helen says her husband would have enjoyed it. He never did step inside the American Legion Post 31 building, but past post commander Ronnie Gentry says it doesn’t matter if you’re a member or not; they help veterans no matter the cost.

“They took up a collection. They did that twice in one week a few weeks ago. They said ‘No, he’s a veteran. We’re taking care of him,’ That’s what we did. It’s a brotherhood, so it breaks my heart,” Gentry says.

But “no matter the cost” is starting to cost the legion greatly. With back taxes, mortgages, and property taxes, those costs are putting the post in the red by more than $300,000.

The legion also bought this piece of land, although Gentry says not everyone agreed on buying it. But when they did sell it in 2015 it didn’t help their finances at a 30 thousand dollar loss.

Gentry says he feels overwhelmed by the finances, “I’ve been an officer here for 12 years. My father he’s been an officer here for many years. This was his last year. I have two grandfathers served in World War II, members, cousins. We’re a big military family. We really are, and I’m very overwhelmed, very saddened. It affects me personally. It affects my family, personally, it affects my home life, personally, to be honest with you. It really does. It’s just something that we can’t seem to squeeze out of no matter how hard we try or people volunteer to do free things.”

Their building is now listed for sale. They’re fearful they won’t get all the money back from it. Gentry says he doesn’t believe anyone mishandled the money. But they did make some mistakes.

“We were trying to put a Band-aid on a pretty big wound. And I don’t think everyone wanted to admit it was a failing process, because we have so much faith in ourselves and our veterans, so we wanted to be there for them no matter what,” Gentry says.

Now, he’s faced with letting down an organization that has helped so many veterans. “To turn your back on them is heartbreaking,” he says. “Whether you have control over it or not, it’s heartbreaking.”

There is some good news.  The post also owed more than $8,000 in property taxes on that building to the city and county. The post told me they handed in their charity exemption application in March, and hadn’t been approved.

I called the property valuation administrator. She said they hadn’t completed it. Within the day, the two parties connected and the legion’s $8,0000 property tax has been zeroed out.

The legion also said when they sell their building, because they have to, they will probably operate out of the Veterans of Foreign Wars’s building.

I spoke to the quartermaster at the VFW, who told me veterans groups across the area seem to be struggling. He told me they are not in debt, and generally break even.

The building is up for sale. It was in the hands of a realtor for months. But now, the legion is talking to the bank about an auction. If the bank does not release the building to be put up for auction, the legion says they will need to regroup.

Photographer: Chad Darnall

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