Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed budget document for Fiscal Year 2014-15 includes a $4 million appropriation for the local facility, the Cleveland Daily Banner has learned.
Included on page A-137 of the vast 354-page budget document, it is listed as a line item earmarked for a new Tennessee veterans home in Bradley County.
“This is a wonderful and timely gift from Gov. Haslam to our local community,” said state Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland whose 24th Legislative District includes the 28-acre site off APD-40 that supporters still hope will become the 108-bed facility’s nesting place.
Brooks added, “It signifies, as we have been saying recently, that the State Veterans Home in Bradley County is still very much on track for our local veterans. This comes at a great time and will go a long way in funding this project.”
Since late 2013, the Southeast Tennessee Veterans Home Council and local supporters have been working closely with the state Veterans Affairs Office to resolve concerns about the proposed site as identified by the State of Tennessee Real Estate and Asset Management. STREAM is a division of state government operating within the Department of General Services.
In November, STREAM rejected the donated property by citing concerns over land dimensions, soil texture, visibility and rising costs; however, Tennessee Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Many-Bears Grinder called these “speed bumps” that can be overcome with diligence and cooperative mindsets by state and local officials.
Site concerns are still being addressed and have yet to be fully resolved, but news of the governor’s budget proposal has lifted the spirits of the local veterans team.
“We are elated, and are very appreciative, of the $4 million included in Gov. Haslam’s proposed budget for the Cleveland/Bradley County State Veterans Home,” local VA Director Larry McDaris stressed. “Since the initial application, the design of the home has changed. This, plus inflation has driven the projected cost for construction up by about $10 million.”
When the local application was first submitted in 2008, the home’s estimated cost was about $21 million. Since that time, extensive design changes that have enhanced the project, as well as inflation, have upped the price to more than $30 million.
In order to qualify for a 65 percent federal government match, local and state cofers had to ante up 35 percent of the cost. Until the governor’s proposed $4 million appropriation came along, the local and state match just wasn’t there, McDaris explained.
Haslam’s earmark for the local facility now means more than $11 million is available for the state and local match. McDaris said current commitments include: $4 million from state government; $3 million from a private donor who has not been identified; and slightly more than $2 million each from the Cleveland City Council and Bradley County Commission.
“This additional $4 million from the state, if it is ultimately approved by the state Legislature, would be a huge boost in our efforts to meet the increased 35 percent required to be eligible for the 65 percent federal match,” McDaris said. “We are most grateful for this help from the state.”
Yvette Martinez, assistant commissioner of Outreach and Communications for the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, confirmed early today the state appropriation is earmarked exclusively and “indefinitely” for the Bradley County project.
“The governor, as well as the Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs, are committed to this project,” Martinez reported through an email statement to the Banner. “... The funds were requested by the Tennessee State Veterans Home administration. They manage and operate the homes as a self-sustaining entity.”
Although the $4 million appropriation will get the local project much closer to its funding goal, it will still be about $870,000 short of reaching the 35 percent state/local share.
“The federal government pays for 65 percent of construction costs for state veterans homes and the remainder of 35 percent is state and local funding,” Martinez explained. “For the Bradley County Tennessee State Veterans Home, there is [still] a deficit of $869,980 to reach the 35 percent.”
She said until the unmet balance is appropriated, the local project will not be added to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Priority 1 list for construction of future state veterans homes.
Martinez confirmed the $4 million appropriation, if approved, will not carry a statute of limitations. Its commitment to the Bradley County project is a specific earmark and it is indefinite.
Once the Bradley County home is ready for construction, the state funds will be available for use provided they are approved by state legislators.
[Commissioner] Grinder, who is out of state on business attending a conference and who is a longtime advocate of the local veterans home project, weighed in on the governor’s commitment to the local initiative.
“We were excited to see the proposed appropriation for the Bradley County Tennessee State Veterans Home in the governor's budget,” Grinder said. “We believe this state investment puts this project one step closer to construction.”
McDaris, who has dedicated years to the veterans home project, and Brooks were joined by the rest of the Bradley County legislative delegation in crediting Haslam’s willingness to support the local initiative.
“This gift from Gov. Haslam shows his support for veterans across our state, for Bradley County and for those who represent this city and county in Nashville,” said state Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland who represents the 22nd Legislative District. “We are very thankful for these funds.”
State Sens. Mike Bell, R-Riceville representing the 9th Senatorial District, and Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga representing the 4th Senatorial District, echoed the sentiments of Brooks, Watson and McDaris.
“This appropriation is important toward the future of this significant project in Bradley County,” Bell stressed. “There are 94 other counties, all requesting funds, so we are grateful for this help.”
Like Brooks, Gardenhire pointed to the timing of the budget document. It came at a time when Bradley County veterans needed a boost, the senator said.
“We truly needed this funding, but more importantly, we needed this public show of support for this project,” Gardenhire stated. “This is a great day for Bradley County veterans.”
Brooks, Watson, Bell and Gardenhire all pledged their continuing support for the local veterans home once the property rejection by STREAM was announced. All committed to working together to find a property solution — whether it meant correcting issues with the existing site or finding another location. The same commitments were made by the state VA commissioner during a personal visit to Cleveland shortly after the STREAM decision was disclosed.
At this point, the governor’s budget remains a proposal. It must be voted on by both chambers of the state Legislature — the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both have finance committees whose members will take it up first. Brooks is a member of the House Finance Committee.
Brooks said he feels good about the local earmark because it is already included in Haslam’s proposal.
“We’re not having to fight to insert this funding [into the budget document],” Brooks said. “This is the governor saying, ‘we need to do this.’ This is the best place we can be [as far as potential state funding].”
The Cleveland legislator, who serves as assistant majority leader in the House, said this is an identical type of appropriation made by Haslam in last year’s budget document that cleared the way for the start of construction of the new veterans home in Montgomery County. Groundbreaking for the Clarksville facility came in 2013.
Brooks doesn’t have a timeline on the budget proposal, but pointed out the 108th General Assembly of the Legislature is scheduled to complete its work by mid-April. This means a budget vote sometime before then.
“Unlike Washington, D.C., we can’t leave Nashville without balancing our budget,” Brooks said. “We have a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget.”
That means legislators will focus on the budget, and its funding proposals, for the next two months, he noted.
Brooks said the Bradley County veterans home has communitywide support.
“We believe in this project,” he said. “We are supportive of this project. This [Haslam’s budget document] sends a very comforting signal that the Bradley County veterans home has the attention of those in Nashville ... at the very highest level.”
Brooks also pointed to another figure who has supported the local facility.
“During the closing days of our last [General Assembly] session, I had a conversation with then-Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey,” the Cleveland lawmaker reflected. “I shared with him how much we would miss him in Nashville, as a friend of Bradley County and of his support for our State Veterans Home here. But even without him being here, I feel Claude is still helping us out, and for that I am truly grateful.”