The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 27, 2013

Our View: Scrutinize vets housing funding

Why it matters: Determining how best to use state bonding money on veterans housing will serve taxpayers

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Discussions on changes to veterans’ housing funding in Minnesota between administrators and an oversight committee have created a healthy tension that should be a regular part of public funding decisions for such projects.

The DFL-House leadership convened a select committee last year to look into how an earlier approved $19 million in state bonding money might be used in the expansion of the Minnesota Veterans Home in Minneapolis. The state money would be matched by up to $35 million in federal money.

The total $54 million was to go toward a 100-bed expansion of the Minneapolis facility. But key legislators like Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, and chair of the House Capital Investment Committee, took notice of the price per bed – about $500,000, a figure she noted seemed exorbitant, according to a report by Politics in Minnesota.

Hausman joked the money could be used to buy each of those 100 veterans a very nice house, according to the report.

The approval came at a time when there were also outstanding requests for new veterans’ facilities in Bemidji, Montevideo, Willmar and Brainerd. House leadership thus created the select committee to study the issue of how to better manage veterans housing with the funding available.

The committee, headed by former Army sergeant major Rep. Jerry Newton of Coon Rapids, recently released a report that suggested a more decentralized approach to veterans housing. Newton spent about two decades in the Army and has experience dealing with veterans groups and veterans issues.

The committee’s report suggests changing from a large centralized system with hundreds of veterans under one roof to one of community-based smaller homes and facilities. It points to changing the way veterans qualify for housing from a first-come, first-served basis to one that puts seriously injured combat veterans first.

Minnesota Department of Veteran Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito took issue with the committee’s report, saying it was “steeped in innuendo, short on substance … and long on assumptions,” according to the PIM report.

He contended that the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs has been running housing efficiently since it took over the task over running the state’s five veterans homes in 2007. He said he believes centralization allows Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs to provide consistent services to veterans. He strongly objected to the committee’s report, which was passed unanimously, according to the PIM report.

Hausman wants to consider some of the committee’s recommendations in next year’s bonding bill discussions, where some $80 million in bonding may be available for affordable housing throughout the state. She’d like to see some of that go toward veterans housing, according to PIM.

It appears that there will be a conflict brewing between current administrators of veterans housing and the Legislature which would like to look at new ways of doing things.

Shellito has his backers as well. The longtime leader of the Minnesota National Guard, Shellito, a major general, was appointed to his post by Gov. Mark Dayton and gained endorsements from Minnesota First District Congressman Tim Walz, a veteran himself, and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Clearly, $500,000 for a 100 bed expansion of the Minneapolis facility seems out of line with reality. That number may be adjusted if Minnesota gets approved for more beds from the federal government, which will evaluate the need in 2014. Community-based housing for veterans makes some sense because there are veterans in need of housing all over the state.

Let’s hope reasonable people will agree to disagree on some of the more minor issues and funds are allocated in a way that serves veterans and provides value for taxpayers.