LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman called on Grand Island elected officials Thursday to condemn their county veterans service officer for working to block federal funding for a new state veterans home in Kearney.
The governor sent a strongly worded letter to the officials, calling Hall County Veterans Service Officer Don Shuda's actions “outrageous” and “inappropriate.”
In the letter, Heineman said Shuda opposes federal funding for a new Central Nebraska Veterans Home. He cited a letter dated Sept. 6 that Shuda sent to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Shuda's letter, however, called upon the department to withhold federal funding for a new veterans home only “until further study is completed.”
The letter encouraged VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to look at renovating the 126-year-old veterans home in Grand Island. It also included several pages of signatures on a petition showing support for keeping the home in Grand Island.
Shuda did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.
The governor's letter marks the latest round in his battle with Grand Island business and community leaders over plans to move the veterans home.
Heineman said Kearney scored highest in an open bidding and evaluation process to decide the location of a new home.
“Since Grand Island came in third, your veterans service officer now opposes federal funding for a new Central Nebraska Veterans Home. That's outrageous,” Heineman said.
“Our veterans need and deserve better.”
Grand Island officials have vowed to fight the move, saying the bidding process was not fair and open.
State Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island said he supports federal funding for a new veterans home but still intends to fight the planned move.
He said Shuda, an outspoken veterans service officer who has generated previous controversies, spoke for himself and not for other Grand Island officials in the letter.
Nebraska officials have submitted an application for nearly $65 million from the federal Veterans Affairs to build a 225-bed home in Kearney. The total cost of the home is estimated at $107 million. To get funding, state officials must persuade their federal counterparts to list the home as a high priority.
In a Sept. 25 response to Shuda's letter, a Veterans Affairs representative said the federal government has no “decision-making authority” in selecting a location for a new home.
“VA would respect a governor's right to choose the location where it will be built,” wrote Marci Mylan, director of the VA's Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.
Heineman addressed his letter to Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek and Pam Lancaster, chairwoman of the Hall County Board, as well as to Gloor. The governor called on the three to condemn Shuda's actions and get behind the effort to build a new home.
“I hope Mr. Shuda was operating on his own without your support and your approval,” he said.
Neither Vavricek nor Lancaster returned messages seeking comment.
The County Board recently supported a proposal by veterans and local citizens to seek a $75 million renovation of the veterans home in their city. The proposal, which also would require tapping some federal dollars, is billed as an alternative to building a new home in Kearney.
Heineman criticized the alternative proposal during an appearance Monday in Kearney, saying it could create confusion about the state's plan.
Gloor said he wonders whether the governor's tone means he will blame Grand Island if the new home does not get federal funding.
The proposed Nebraska home would take most of the $83 million that the VA has requested for veterans home construction and renovation projects nationwide in the current fiscal year.