LINCOLN — Two years ago, a top state official promised that the Grand Island Veterans Home would stay in Hall County.
If there was any question about relocating the home when it was replaced, “let there be none,” said John Hilgert, state director of veterans affairs and veterans homes, as he sought to reassure Grand Island officials.
But that was before a long-running feud among Nebraska veterans leaders propelled events in a different direction.
The chain of events began when one veterans faction, because of its disagreements with the Hall County veterans service officer, called publicly for moving the home.
Events culminated this month with Gov. Dave Heineman announcing that he had picked Kearney as the new location of the state institution.
Grand Island officials reacted with shock and outrage.
“You're basically taking part of the culture of the community and yanking it out,” said State Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, pointing to the home's 126-year history in Grand Island. The community gave 640 acres of land to the state for the initial construction.
City and county leaders have vowed to fight the decision, although they were still weighing their options Friday. They said the process for selecting a location had not been fair and open.
Some cited meetings between Kearney and state officials last year, before the state announced that it would seek competitive proposals.
Others pointed farther back, to a resolution passed unanimously by the Nebraska Veterans Council on Nov. 22, 2011, and sent to the governor and state senators.
The council, which describes itself as the “voice of the Nebraska veterans,” has representation from eight veterans groups.
The resolution called for moving the home out of Hall County unless county officials discharged Don Shuda, the veterans service officer for Hall, Howard, Merrick and Nance Counties.
Council members won't say much publicly about the reasons behind the resolution.
“I'm not going to talk about it. I'm not going to get into a lawsuit,” said Dan Petersen, the immediate past council chairman.
Council member Greg Holloway said only that he believes veterans would be better represented in another county, where all parties cooperate.
News reports show disagreements stretching over several years.
The most recent was in mid-November 2011, when Holloway and other veterans leaders appeared before the Hall County Board to complain that Shuda was interfering with the veterans home and its administrator, Alex Willford. They also alleged that Shuda was not supporting veterans' applications to move into the home.
Shuda said he was representing the home's residents, who are called members.
Several members had complained to him about Willford enforcing new safety standards barring them from using power tools in work therapy programs or a barbecue grill for personal cookouts.
In 2010, another controversy involved whether to require certification for veterans service officers. Shuda, a leader with the longtime state veterans service officers group, supported training but not certification.
Eric Williams, veterans council chairman in 2011 and the Fillmore County veterans service officer, was among those who started a breakaway group backing certification.
As he has done before, Shuda chalks up the disagreements and the resolution to “personalities and politics.” He maintains the support of his County Board.
But veterans council members didn't stop at passing the resolution. Some, including Holloway, went to Kearney officials and urged them to submit a proposal for relocating the veterans home.
“That probably started the (competitive) process,” Holloway said.
Kearney Mayor Stan Clouse said that until the meeting he was unaware that the home was slated to be replaced and that he had not considered trying to bring it to his city.
Kearney's first step was seeing if the state would even consider other locations.
City leaders met in February 2012 with officials from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the state's four veterans homes.
Clouse said HHS officials told him they hadn't thought much about seeking proposals for the $121 million, 225-bed home and its 350 jobs.
The decision to open up the process to other central Nebraska communities sprang from that meeting, according to spokeswomen for both the governor and HHS.
“It was a process that began when other communities approached the state expressing an interest in whether we might consider a competitive process,” said Kathie Osterman of HHS. She later clarified that Kearney was the only community to express such an interest.
Kearney officials met again in September with Kerry Winterer, the top official at HHS, and Hilgert, who heads the HHS Veterans Homes Division, to give a presentation on the possibilities for a Kearney location.
Clouse said the presentation built off work done in trying to lure a Facebook data center to a nearby parcel of land.
By December, the state's decision to open up the process had become widely known.
On April 29, a formal “request for statement of interest and offer” was released, along with the criteria the state would use to rate the proposals.
Four communities — Grand Island, Kearney, Hastings and North Platte — submitted proposals by the June 11 deadline.
A site selection committee — made up of Hilgert; Carlos Castillo, then-director of the Department of Administrative Services; and Catherine Lang, director of the Departments of Labor and Economic Development — gave the top score to Kearney. Grand Island came in third.
Heineman, Winterer and Lang said the veterans council's Shuda resolution and the feud among veterans leaders played no part in the process or outcome.
“I believe that all ... sites received a fair evaluation,” Lang said.
Representatives of the veterans council also denied that the resolution was influential. Williams said he doesn't believe the governor would have penalized one community for the actions of one person, even if that's what the resolution urged.
Petersen downplayed the concerns raised by Grand Island officials, calling them sour grapes.
But some Grand Island leaders said they believe the Shuda resolution and the involvement of veterans council members in fostering a competing proposal did influence the outcome.
Pam Lancaster, the Hall County Board chairwoman, said moving the home will affect hundreds of people, from members and their families to employees.
“The saddest part of all of this — if any of this had something to do with moving the home — is that grown human beings cannot put their differences aside for the betterment of those who fought for us,” she said.