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VA omits key features from first phase of veterans cemetery

WASHINGTON – When the first phase of a long-awaited veterans cemetery is completed in Genesee County in early 2022, it will be roughly half the facility that local veterans have been expecting.

Instead of including interment space for 8,672 veterans, the Western New York National Cemetery will, at first, have room for only 4,000.

Instead of offering an elaborate above-ground columbarium for the storage of cremated remains, the cemetery will bury funeral urns in the ground, just like caskets.

And other key features of the cemetery – such as an honor guard building for military ceremonies, an ossuary for commingled remains and a memorial wall honoring local veterans interred elsewhere – will be missing until the second phase of cemetery construction.

The Buffalo News determined what's missing from the first phase of cemetery development via a close examination of the Department of Veterans Affairs' original plans for the facility as well as the revised plans issued after bids on the project ran millions of dollars over budget. That cost overrun forced the VA to break the phase into two phases.

If Congress sets aside an additional $10 million for the project, and if bids on that phase come in on target, VA officials say the second phase of the cemetery will be built and in operation by June of 2022. That means the cemetery's missing parts will be finished only months after the completion of its first phase.

But veterans activists, feeling burned after a decade-long delay in the project, are angry that so many of the cemetery's features have been delayed. They say they are unsure if those features ever will be built.

"My general take at this point in time is Western New York veterans are getting shortchanged once again," said Patrick W. Welch, a retired Marine who has been pushing for the cemetery for years. "To the best of my knowledge, and I'm not an expert in this, this is the only cemetery that's gone through a two-phase development. And again, I'm not an expert in it, but my understanding is that all the other cemeteries had been fully funded right from the start."

A big change in plans

The VA's original plans for the cemetery in Pembroke feature a peanut-shaped area that dominates the north half of the project, lined with facilities and greenery.

But in the VA's revised drawings, most of the right side of that peanut-shaped area is missing.

Most notably of all, the columbarium – envisioned as a arc-shaped area with several rows of tall columns where cremated remains would be stored – is gone.

The proposed columbarium at the Western New York National Cemetery in Pembroke, as envisioned by the LA Group, the landscape architectural firm that designed the facility.

The missing columbarium is what worries Welch the most.

"I think the trend more and more for individuals is cremation," he said. "And without the columbarium, cremains are now going to have to go into the ground for those people that don't want to wait for it, just taking up valuable grave space."

The VA's original plans show that the columbarium is intended to have room for the cremated remains of 3,072 veterans. In other words, the omission of the columbarium stands as the biggest reason why the cemetery's first-phase capacity shrank so much when the VA redrew the project for budgetary reasons.

"The columbarium was a very substantial and, I thought, very attractive facility," said James B. Neider, a longtime veterans advocate from the Batavia area who has been pushing for the cemetery's construction.

And while the columbarium is the largest and most elaborate element left out of the cemetery's first phase, it is by no means the only one.

The original plans call for two "committal shelters" – facilities where funerals can take place – but the first-phase development will include only one. So when it opens, the cemetery will be able to accommodate only one funeral at a time rather than two.

Similarly, an honor guard building has been put off until Congress provides more funding.

"Oh, good, we won't have anyplace to stand out of the rain until the ceremonies," Neider said.

Neither Walsh nor Neider expressed great concern that a maintenance facility had been delayed until the cemetery's second phase. What worried them the most was the reduction in interment sites as well as facilities for use during funeral services.

"You're not talking about the frills or lace" being delayed, Neider said. "You're talking about the basics."

A budget crunch

The VA broke the Pembroke cemetery project into two phases after the first round of bids for the project came in over the $36 million in federal funding already set aside for the project.

Breaking the project into two phases should not be a problem – if Congress gives the project more money, and if the bidding on the second phase doesn't also exceed what Congress sets aside.

"Phase 1B will allow for completion of the cemetery and provide other critical features identified in the prospectus including but not necessarily limited to the balance of the burial options (to include columbarium), additional roadway and parking, additional signage and site furnishings, additional landscaping and irrigation as needed, and a second permanent committal shelter," the VA said in budget documents seeking the additional $10 million.

So far, the project seems to be on track for getting that extra money in the federal budget for the fiscal year that starts in October. President Trump, a Republican, included the extra $10 million in his budget request. And the House Appropriations Committee, led by Democrats, included the money in its fiscal 2020 spending bill for military projects and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Congress has not yet finalized that spending bill, and veterans advocates have an even bigger worry: Even if the VA gets that money, it might still fall short of what it needs.

For one thing, breaking the project in two likely raised its costs. And for another, the VA's stop-and-start effort to build the cemetery over the course of the past decade gives veterans little confidence.

"By the time they're ready to do phase two, the additional $10 million that they've requested is not going to be enough," Welch said. "They're going to wind up cutting back these other things, and we're not going to wind up with the cemetery that we were promised in the initial stages of it. That's the long-term problem that I see."

The project's congressional advocates seem less worried.

“My top priority has been — and will remain — making this cemetery a reality for the 167,000 Western New York veterans who deserve a fitting final resting place reflective of their heroic service," said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat who has been pushing for the project for more than a decade. "That’s why I’m pushing to secure the additional $10 million to complete construction. I won’t stop holding the VA accountable so that this cemetery is constructed without needless delays.”

Schumer announced earlier this month that the VA had awarded a $23 million contract to Global Urban Enterprise, an Ontario County firm, to build the first phase of the cemetery project. The facility is expected to be ready for its first burials in November or December 2020.

According to a timeline the VA has outlined to members of Congress, the first phase should be completed by March of 2022. If Congress sets aside the extra $10 million and if it's enough, the VA expects to award a construction contract for the second phase by next May and complete work on it by June of 2022.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican whose district includes the cemetery, said he is glad the VA selected a contractor for the project's first phase.

"I will continue to follow this project closely and look forward to breaking ground,” Collins said in a statement.

Welch and Neider, advocates of the cemetery project from the start, didn't sound nearly so satisfied with the VA's actions. They said the VA never notified them of what was cut from the project's first phase, and they only found out when The Buffalo News detailed the changes.

To Neider, it's all one more reason to be wary of believing what the VA says about the cemetery.

"I don't like to sound jaded, but it's almost like: When it's there and I can see it, I'll believe it," Neider said. "I think a lot of my fellow veterans feel the same way."

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