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WNY veterans cemetery to encounter yet another delay

WASHINGTON – Veterans will gather in Corfu Wednesday afternoon to hear the latest about the region's new veterans cemetery – including some more bad news about yet another delay.

While the first phase of the cemetery project will result in burials starting late next year, the second – originally said to follow the first by only months – now won't be under construction until 2022, with completion set for two years later.

Department of Veterans Affairs officials confirmed the delay in the second phase of the project Tuesday, a day before a 3 p.m. public meeting at the Pembroke Community Center in Corfu, where they will discuss the project.

The delay didn't sit well with Patrick W. Welch, a longtime Buffalo veterans advocate who has grown increasingly weary of delays in a project first proposed more than a decade ago.

"I think is an example of ineptitude, incompetence and total mismanagement," Welch said.

Les' A. Melnyk, chief of public affairs and outreach for the VA's National Cemetery Administration, revealed the second-phase delay in response to emailed questions from The Buffalo News. Asked for an explanation for the delay, Melnyk didn't respond.

Only six weeks ago, Veterans Affairs officials had said the second phase of the project would be completed by June of 2022, just months after the completion of the first phase.

VA omits key features from first phase of veterans cemetery

But the latest news means several of the cemetery's key features won't be completed for several years, including the columbarium, an arc-shaped area with several rows of tall columns where cremated remains would be stored. Cremated remains will be buried in the interim.

The VA's original plans show that the columbarium is intended to have room for the remains of 3,072 veterans. The omission of the columbarium, then, is the main reason why the cemetery will have a capacity of only 4,000 when the first phase of construction is completed in early 2022.

Before the VA broke the project in two because of cost overruns, the cemetery was supposed to accommodate the remains of 8,672 veterans by 2022.

The delay in the second phase also means one of the two "committal shelters" – facilities where funerals can take place – will likely have to wait until 2024. So will an honor guard building, where veteran groups were to seek shelter from the elements before and after funeral ceremonies.

Welch said he is particularly worried, though, that the fence around the perimeter of the project has been omitted from its first phase.

"The concern about the fence is vandalism and, during the winter, snowmobiles whizzing through there," Welch said. "That's a part of the community where people ride snowmobiles and ATVs. What's to keep them from rolling across cemetery grounds?"

An aide to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer – a New York Democrat who is the project's main champion in Congress – also expressed great concern about the latest delay.

“The VA’s new disclosure is deeply disappointing, and Senator Schumer strongly urges the VA to re-evaluate these plans and to move heaven and Earth to stay on track for the second phase," said Allison Biasotti, Schumer's spokeswoman. "But our main focus is to hold the VA’s feet to the fire so they meet the promised Phase One November/December 2020 date to begin first burials.”

There's nothing unusual about delays at National Veterans Administration projects. A Government Accountability Office report released last month found that the agency has opened only two of its recent projects on time, leaving 11, including the one in Pembroke, behind schedule.

The delays elsewhere are tied to the same problems experienced in Pembroke: trouble finding an adequate site and trouble accurately estimating the costs of VA cemeteries, the government watchdog reported.

The VA has asked for an additional $10 million from Congress to cover cost overruns that forced the Pembroke project to be bid a second time and broken into two phases.

Melnyk, the VA spokesman, said that would be enough money to cover the cost of the second phase, but Welch has some doubts about that.

"My sources tell me that nobody in the VA has any idea where that number came from," Welch said.

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