LINCOLN — Nebraska could face stiff competition for the federal money needed to replace the Grand Island Veterans Home.
The state is asking for nearly $65 million from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to build a new 225-bed home.
That would have eaten up most of the $83 million that the VA had available for veterans home construction and renovation projects nationwide in the current fiscal year.
The Obama administration requested the same amount for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Whether that amount will be approved remains to be seen.
But John Hilgert, Nebraska's director of veterans home and veterans affairs, isn't discouraged about the state's chances of getting the project funded.
“I think we have a good case,” he said.
To get funded, Nebraska officials must persuade their federal counterparts to list the new Nebraska home as a high priority.
The VA ranks project applications every year, then goes down the priority list, funding projects until the pool of money runs out. The federal government provides up to 65 percent of the cost of the projects.
Top ranking goes to projects aimed at addressing safety concerns, with renovations, replacement homes and new construction farther down the list.
Vernon Wilkes, chief of the VA State Home Construction grant program, said funds were offered to 70 of the 125 applications during the current year. Money carried over from the previous fiscal year helped boost the total, he said.
In the coming year, Wilkes said he expects to fund about half as many projects, because several have larger price tags.
The proposed Nebraska home would be among the higher-cost projects, even though its cost has been trimmed back.
State officials this spring estimated construction costs at $121 million, with $74 million to be sought from the VA.
As of Aug. 1, the cost estimate was down to $107 million, with $65 million being requested from the federal government.
Hilgert said the dollar figures could change again as the state continues talking with VA officials about the cost.
Even at the reduced cost, however, only two project applications submitted to the VA for this year were estimated to cost more. Neither was funded.
Among project applications with lower costs were two for new homes with more beds than Nebraska has planned.
Nebraska also spent less building the Eastern Nebraska Veterans Home in Bellevue, a 120-bed home that replaced the aging Thomas Fitzgerald Home in Omaha.
The new home was completed in 2007 for $22 million, including nearly $14 million of federal funding.
The state used Schemmer, an Omaha-based architectural, engineering and planning firm, for the Bellevue home. It is using the same firm in planning the central Nebraska home.
Hilgert attributed the additional cost of the new home to several factors, among them:
» The larger number of beds
» Six years of inflation in construction costs
» The state's requirement for reinforced hallways for tornado protection
» A design that emphasizes “neighborhoods” of rooms
» The state's requirement that the new home include the same amenities as the current one, such as a woodshop and kiln
“There's nothing extravagant that I'm aware of that we're requesting,” he said.
Hilgert said the chief goal of the new home is resolving safety problems with the current home, which is 126 years old.
The State Fire Marshal's Office has cited several deficiencies in the home, including too-narrow stairways, too-short ramps, insufficient exit hallways and corridors without fire protection.
State officials hope their emphasis on safety matters will help the Nebraska project gain higher priority.
“This is not simply a replacement but a replacement with a purpose,” Hilgert said.
Even for safety projects, however, the federal government will not approve funding until states commit to providing matching funds, Wilkes said.
The Nebraska Legislature took that step this spring, setting aside $47 million for the replacement home.
To help Nebraska's chances, Hilgert said, the state has offered to accept smaller grants over multiple years. But Wilkes said the VA splits funding over more than one year only in extraordinary cases.
Both men said the controversy about the location of the veterans home should have no effect on the state's funding chances.
Grand Island officials have vowed to fight Gov. Dave Heineman's decision to build the home in Kearney, the location recommended by a selection committee after proposals from four communities were reviewed.
Community leaders in Grand Island, which has been home to the state institution since it was built, say the process was not fair and open.
Wilkes said the federal government's only concern about location is ensuring there are enough veterans in an area to justify a home.
“We don't select a location,” he said. “It's up to the state to submit a location to us.”
Hilgert said the decision about a location has been made and the project is moving forward.
But he promised the state will keep up the existing home, including renovations, until a replacement home is complete.
Continuing with renovations would be especially important if the state doesn't get federal construction funding in its first year of trying, Hilgert said.
“We have to care about the veterans today and tomorrow,” he said.