Money for Walla Walla veterans home in peril

Geoff Folsom, Herald staff writerFebruary 15, 2014 

— A bill that would help bring an 80-bed veterans home to Walla Walla is getting another chance in the state House of Representatives.

But federal funding that was once secure for more than half the cost is now in doubt.

Senate Bill 5691, which passed 48-0 earlier this week, would authorize the state Department of Veterans Affairs to add the Veterans Home to a list of similar homes operated in Washington.

It now goes to the state House of Representatives, where a similar measure died last year after also unanimously passing the Senate.

Officials held a tribal blessing ceremony in May 2013 at the Walla Walla Veterans Affairs Medical Center site where the state-operated facility would be built and a groundbreaking was held.

“We pushed shovels because it’s supposed to be a done deal,” said Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, one of the bill’s sponsors. “But it got hung up at the federal level.”

The facility would add 93 permanent jobs and serve 10 counties, including Benton and Franklin counties, with a population of more than 50,000 veterans.

It would be a complex of small houses on the Walla Walla VA campus and include a skilled nursing home to provide long-term care to honorably discharged veterans and the surviving spouses of veterans who have died.

A $21.8 million VA grant for the project was pulled after a longer than expected environmental review of the project, Hewitt said. That led to the project missing a deadline to transfer the land for the home from the federal to the state veterans administration.

The law requires homes receiving money from the VA’s State Veterans Home Construction Grant Program to be owned by the state government.

“The (federal) veterans department had to reprioritize the list and Walla Walla fell off,” Hewitt said.

The state plans to contribute $14.4 million to the project.

The Walla Walla project was hurt because more states applied for veterans home money with the VA in 2014 than last year, said Walla Walla Deputy City Manager Tim McCarty. Some states either don’t have veterans homes or the ones they do have are dealing with health and safety problems.

More states were able to offer required matching money for their veterans homes because they were coming out of the recession, McCarty said.

“We went from really high on the priority list to 60-something,” he said. “I always thought that once you got in line, you were in line. But these other ones budged the line.”

The VA budget for veterans homes is about $85 million, but it would have to be more than $300 million for the Walla Walla facility to be funded, McCarty said.

McCarty is chairman of a task force that has helped rally funding at the Walla Walla VA campus since the federal government threatened the facility with closure in 2004.

In Washington, the state Department of Veterans Affairs now has homes in Spokane, Orting and Retsil, near Port Orchard.

Those homes have waiting lists, said Walla Walla Air Force veteran Don Schack, a member of the Governor’s Veterans Affairs Advisory Committee. The Walla Walla site also would be ideal because it is close to a VA Medical Center, he said.

If the project gets built, he said, “This is a win-win, not only for the city and the county and the VA, but also all the veterans.”

Heidi Audette, spokeswoman for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, is not sure where the Walla Walla home will fall on the priority list in 2015.

“We would likely get on the list again next year, it just depends where we fall,” she said.

But officials from Washington state are in Washington, D.C., to try to get help.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has discussed the veterans home with Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary Robert Petzel three times, said her spokesman Sean Coit. And she continues to work with high-level VA officials, he said.

“Her approach is we need a better system of ranking the projects, but also getting the money out the door and making that happen,” Coit said.

The state Department of Veterans Affairs also is working with Murray and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, Audette said.

State veterans department director Lourdes E. “Alfie” Alvarado-Ramos was in D.C. on Wednesday to receive an award from Shinseki. Audette said she did not address the Walla Walla home with him then, but Alvarado-Ramos plans to ask for time with Shinseki at the National Association of State Veterans Homes conference later this month.

The home would provide an unmet need for poor, aging or sick veterans in a service area that includes part of three states, said McCarty, himself a Navy veteran.

“I don’t believe they leave the home, most of them,” he said. “This is where they die.”

McCarty said he feels it is too early to be upset about the project. The home still has a chance of being funded this year or next, he said.

At the state level, the bill returns to the House. Hewitt said there was confusion last year in the House Appropriations Committee because the language in the bill had to match federal Department of Veterans Affairs wording so the home could get federal money. But he feels good about the bill’s chances to pass this year.

“We do, but you never know,” he said. “It’s a short year (for the Legislature).”

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