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WNY vets question delays on national cemetery project

A crowd gathered at the Pembroke Community Center in Corfu Wednesday 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 Pembroke cemetery project will result in burials starting late next year, the second – originally said to follow the first by months – now won't be under construction until 2022, with completion set for two years later.

James Metcalfe, director of the WNY National Cemetery, presided over the meeting, along with Lisa Pozzebon, director of cemetery operations for the National Cemetery Administration, and Ann Marie Sweet-Abshire, national region director of construction and facilities management.

They assured the veterans attending the meeting that adjustments could be made for future phases of the project.

Several of the veterans expressed concerns about the delays – with the widow of one veteran saying that she has been waiting four years to have her husband's ashes interred in the cemetery.

After the meeting, Jim Wehner, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran who resides in Williamsville, blamed poor planning and under-funding.

"It seems like somebody screwed up the bidding process and didn't understand the bidding process and it came in grossly under budget," Wehner said.

Still, Wehner said he is compelled to trust U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer will acquire the additional federal funds needed for the project.

"I'll tell you what, Schumer is not my guy, but Schumer has been good for the veterans. He's been good at bringing money into Western New York. I'll go with him on this. I may not vote for him, but I'll go with him," Wehner 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.

An artist's rendering of the entrance to the new Western New York National Cemetery to be built in Pembroke.  (Image courtesy of LA Group landscape architects)

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.

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.

"Is the columbarium scheduled for Phase 1B? The answer is yes," said Metcalfe, during Wednesday's meeting.

"I have been contacted, and estimate close to 100 people who have contacted me are still holding their urns, waiting," Metcalfe added.

Until then, he said, veterans and their families can opt for a traditional in-ground cremation when the cemetery opens in 2020.

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.

People showed up at the meeting Wednesday on the WNY Veterans Cemetery project in Pembroke Community Center in Corfu. (Harold McNeil/Buffalo News)

The delay in the second phase 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.

In the meantime, a trailer will be provided for the honor guards which, Metcalfe said, will be air-conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter.

"We need the honor guard to come out. We need them to pay the last respects. We want them to be as comfortable as possible. We are there for you... The permanent shelter is coming. I guarantee you," Metcalfe added.

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.

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