This editorial appeared in the Grand Island Independent.
The veterans home controversy made headlines last week, first with the announcement of an alternative proposal that would renovate the Grand Island Veterans Home (GIVH) and then statewide media coverage following a stern chastisement from Gov. Dave Heineman.
The governor’s message was articulated in an open letter that was primarily intended to serve as a press release. The letter was sent early Thursday morning to media outlets across the state and to every member of the state Legislature.
In the letter, specifically addressed to Sen. Mike Gloor, Mayor Jay Vavricek and Hall County Board Chairwoman Pam Lancaster, Heineman expressed outrage over a letter sent by County Veterans Service Officer Don Shuda to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in early September making an appeal to keep the veterans home in Grand Island. Shuda’s letter was accompanied by a petition circulated by a GIVH resident and signed by more than 5,000 area residents.
In his letter, Heineman demanded that Shuda’s actions be condemned and that Grand Island officials reaffirm support for federal funding of a new facility in Kearney.
Heineman further stated that he was disappointed that Shuda asked the VA to “not approve the funding for a new Nebraska veterans home.” That assertion was not entirely accurate as Heineman omitted the rest of the sentence — “until further study is completed.”
Shuda’s letter was sent independently without the endorsement of the Hall County Board of Supervisors, the GI Home for Our Heroes Committee or any other organized group.
The proposal to renovate the existing home was widely reported in detail last week. The plan was conceived by a passionate grass-roots group led by 87-year-old World War II “Battle of the Bulge” veteran and Wood River resident Chick Moyer.
The proposal sent to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Sept. 26 involves retrofitting some existing buildings at the GIVH and replacing others. The concept’s $75 million price tag would trim 40 percent off the projected $121 million cost to build a new home in Kearney. As a courtesy, Mayor Vavricek personally called the governor to alert him in advance of the public announcement of the alternative. Both Vavricek and Lancaster support the alternative plan.
Grand Island’s state legislators, mayor, committee leaders and county officials remain committed to pursuing all options to retain the GIVH. They are unbending in the certainty that the flawed process, bias and political motive led to the decision to move the home to Kearney.
No one wants to see an upset governor or turf battles between neighboring communities. Nonetheless, the governor set the stage for inter-community relationships to be damaged when he chose to pit communities against one another.
In this case, for the price of $10 million, the winner gets to take 350 jobs and a 126-year-old institution from another Nebraska community. The state grows no new jobs in this enterprise but does create hardship and angst for a lot of veterans, staff and their families.
Regarding the likelihood that the federal government will come through with the $74 million or nearly 90 percent of available VA project construction funds for the Nebraska home, Heineman recently acknowledged that “showdowns on Capitol Hill could delay funding for VA projects in 2014 or eliminate funding altogether.”
Securing funding for a $121 million Nebraska home project was a bold dream from the outset. With over 120 construction projects across the U.S. to consider at any given time, the allocation of such a large portion of the VA’s available grant pool to a single project would be extremely unlikely in today’s political and economic climate.
Finally, Heineman’s accusations that GI has changed its tune, doesn’t support federal funding for a new home and doesn’t care about what is best for the veterans are all insultingly off base. The reality is that the veterans home will remain in Grand Island for a long time. Any alternative that provides the best care and quality of life for our veterans while trimming the burden on taxpayers is a win-win scenario, deserving of full vetting by the state and federal government.
In the end, the central issue isn’t over money or buildings or politics or reprisals or bragging rights or jobs. It’s about providing a home.