By John Croman
The Minnesota Veterans Home sits on a beautiful campus surrounded by trees and park land near the Vermillion River. However the buildings and facilities are way overdue for major upgrade.
That's the consensus of state and federal policymakers who toured the state-run facility Thursday. US Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Tim Walz say the time is right to give veterans a nicer, more functional home with the mix of state and federal money.
Sen. Klobuchar praised the staff work squeezing the most they can out of outdated buildings and equipment to serve the 115 veterans who live at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Hastings.
"When you see those small rooms, you see that heating and cooling situation. In as much as the people that worked here have done everything they possibly can to help our vets, we know our vets deserve better," Klobuchar told reporters who followed lawmakers on the tour.
The state-operated facility has served veterans since 1978, but many of the buildings date back to the early 1900s when the campus served as a state mental hospital.
The tour included a residential building where 16 veterans share a communal restroom with three toilets and two showers. The heat exchange units in the bedrooms had rusting parts and plumbing pipes jutted down from aging drop ceilings.
"It has gone up to if not past its useful life," Michael Anderson, who heads the Healthcare Domiciliary Program for the Minnesota Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
"We’ve done everything we can to upgrade the equipment, the airflow, to make this comfortable. But it’s not modern equipment. It’s not sustainable. It does not provide individualized comfort."
Walz and Klobuchar support a plan to build a new facility that would replace six of the nine buildings on campus. The $170 million project would put the veterans' rooms and all the programs and services they use under one roof.
"We all want to be good stewards of taxpayers' money, but if you go out and ask folks in the communities across Minnesota if we should spend money taking care of our veterans, it's about the only thing that polls at 100 percent," Walz remarked.
Currently, some of the aging veterans have to walk outside up a steep incline to get from their dormitory to the workshop, recreation center and the administrative building where they get their medicine, food, counseling and other services.
"I've been talking to the other residents and mainly they’d like to have their own room, with their own shower, and their own toilet," Tom Fayer, a Vietnam veteran who has lived at the Hastings Veterans Home for five years, told reporters.
The current design anticipates the new rooms would all include private bathrooms.
"Everybody’s looking forward to a new building. So, I hope it happens!"
There's a federal Veterans Administration grant that would pay two-thirds of the cost, in this case $111 million. But that money won't flow until after the state commits to its one-third share, or $59.6 million. That would need to come from the bonding bill that's still being debated at the State Capitol.
Two local state lawmakers of different parties have championed the project and are working to convince their colleagues to fully fund the state's share in order to leverage the federal dollars.
"Some have said parts of this building remind them of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' and they're not far off," Rep. Tony Jurgens, a Cottage Grove Republican, said.
"The buildings need to be updated to give our veterans what they deserve from programming to services. And, quite honestly, they deserve it."
Sen. Karla Bigham, a Cottage Grove Democrat, said it's part of a promise our society has made to those who serve their country. She said she's happy the project has full support from Hastings city leaders and Dakota County leaders.
"This is all-hands-on-deck, and we all have a responsibility for providing services for our heroes, to our veterans."
Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke said the new building will be able to accommodate 140 veterans, which will help the Minnesota in its ongoing efforts to solve veterans' homelessness.
"For some this is transitional housing and they're able to move on, so it's a short stay while others stay longer," Commissioner Herke explained.
"But no matter how long their stay I think it’s important they have dignity and respect while they’re here, that we provide them a safe location in which they can live their lives and thrive in a community together."