Heineman: Vets came first in decision to move home from Grand Island to Kearney

Gov. Dave Heineman said: "We're going to keep the veterans uppermost in our minds. That's what's key here.”

LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman on Monday defended the decision to move a Nebraska veterans home from Grand Island amid criticism from callers to his monthly radio call-in show.

One caller from Grand Island said she was “ashamed” of the governor for allowing “fragile” elderly veterans to be moved to a new home planned in Kearney.

Another caller from Grand Island said that the governor should never have permitted a bidding war for the facility and that he had “done a disservice” to veterans.

Heineman, a veteran himself, said the location for a new central Nebraska veterans home was opened to competitive bids in a process similar to the one that allowed Grand Island to become the new home of the Nebraska State Fair.

The State Fair was moved from its decades-old fairgrounds in Lincoln to Grand Island in 2010, after the Legislature selected the central Nebraska city's proposal.

Heineman said Grand Island would have never become the home of the State Fair, nor would it have landed a $17.5 million Nebraska Army National Guard Aviation Support Facility in 2009, if the two decisions hadn't been opened to bidding by communities.

“I understand, if you're living in Grand Island you don't want to lose it,” Heineman said of the veterans home.

Four communities submitted bids to host the $121 million Central Nebraska Veterans Home. It will replace facilities that have been located in Grand Island for 126 years.

The four bids were graded on a 1,200-point scale. Kearney came in first with a score of 1,033; Hastings was second at 977; Grand Island third at 889; and North Platte fourth at 855.

A committee of three state agency heads recommended that Kearney get the home based on the scoring. They were John Hilgert of Veterans Affairs, Carlos Castillo of Administrative Services and Cathy Lang of Economic Development and Labor.

Heineman emphasized that the top priority in the move will be the veterans and that veterans deserve a new facility. He added that aging veterans were able to tolerate a move across Omaha in 2007, after a new home was opened in Bellevue.

“We're going to keep the veterans uppermost in our minds. That's what's key here,” Heineman said.

After three callers chewed out the governor over moving out of Grand Island, one caller from Kearney defended the decision. The process was fair, the woman said, and Grand Island should be blamed for not placing higher in the scoring.

Grand Island residents are still working to reverse the decision.

One resident of the veterans home there, 81-year-old John Huebner, said Monday that more than 1,000 people have signed a petition he's circulating in hopes of getting federal officials, who will provide the bulk of the funding, to change the decision.

“I think people here are 100 percent behind us,” said Huebner, an Army veteran from North Platte. “They want the veterans home to stay here.”

There has also been talk of filing lawsuits to block the move and appealing to the Nebraska Legislature to nullify the move.

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