With a push by some communities and legislators to add three new veterans homes in Minnesota, state officials are making the case that existing facilities in desperate need of repair get funding first.
Minnesota operates five veterans homes across the state and their physical plants are aging. Some buildings date as far back as 1887. Of the more than 2,300 repair projects identified by the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 percent are rated as critical/unacceptable or poor.
"You've seen the good, the bad and ugly, all in the same building," said Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito. "Do they have showers in which to shower? Yes. If the pipe breaks? No."
Although he admits repairs often lack the "pizazz" of a new building, Matt Massman, commissioner of the Department of Administration, said the state has identified $2.8 billion in what it calls "asset preservation" needs over the next 10 years across state-owned properties.
"Delay costs money, it raises safety issues, it raises code compliance and health care issues, it raises functionality concerns for how we're supposed to be caring for our veterans and providing the work of government," Massman said.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is asking for $13.1 million in bonding for projects at its homes in Minneapolis, Silver Bay, Fergus Falls, Hastings and Luverne.
The boiler at Silver Bay, for instance, has been rated as poor and is nearing the end of its useful life with no backup. The department is asking for $3.4 million to replace it.
"The heating system is at risk of defaulting — I said that politely," Shellito said. "If that is not replaced, how would you like to be in Silver Bay in December or January with no heat? That's at the top of the list."
The foundation of the home in Fergus Falls has settled, resulting in fractures and cracking that is causing water damage that will require $2.5 million in repairs. The roof of the building at Little Falls has been rated unacceptable. The water heater in Luverne has been rated the same.
The HVAC system in one building in Minneapolis has also been rated as unacceptable, causing ventilation problems and moisture buildup. Tunnel walls and ceilings in the campus' central plant also are in dire need of repair, and are part of a $4.1 million request for upgrades in Minneapolis, according to the department.
To make their case for widespread repairs and upgrades, state officials recently took the unusual step of showing off what was wrong with the veterans home in Hastings, where some of the buildings were constructed in 1911.
The tour included a look at crumbling tunnel walls and broken water pipes. The water pipes were so antiquated that maintenance crews have had to shut down the entire water system in the event of a leak, which happens several times a year.
A leak several years ago flooded the main building with 3 inches of water.
The plea for help comes as a proposal to build three new veterans homes is circulating at the Capitol. Legislators and community leaders from Preston, Montevideo and Bemidji have pushed for new facilities for more than a decade.
Shellito didn't dismiss the proposals for the new facilities, but pushed for recognizing priorities at the existing homes.
"We could fill all veterans homes very, very easily," Shellito said. "But most important, I need help in making sure we take care of what we have now to a standard that meets the needs of our people in a safe and secure environment."