06/24/17 — Veterans cemetery threatened

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Veterans cemetery threatened

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 24, 2017 5:43 PM

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The Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery gates will be closed and locked next month if lawmakers cannot find a way to replace funds cut in the recently approved state budget meant to keep the cemetery up over the next two years.

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A $5 million federal grant used to construct the cemetery would also have to be repaid should the lapse in state funding hold under the new budget.

The Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery gates will be closed and locked next month.

There will be no more burials there.

Families will be unable to visit loved ones already buried in the cemetery that is less than two years old.

And it could mean that the state will have to repay a $5 million federal grant that was used to construct the cemetery on Long's Plant Farm Road.

It is all because the new state budget does not include the $200,000 needed to cover the next two years of operations for the maintenance at the cemetery, said Larry D. Hall, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

One of the conditions of the grant was that is ceases when the cemetery stops operating, Hall said.

"If they stop operating, they have to repay the grant," Hall said. "So when the grant was received and implemented and the cemetery constructed, the state legislature provided basically $200,000 in the budget to pay for the operations which were workers at the cemetery."

The new budget eliminates the five positions at the cemetery, and the jobs will expire at the end of the month, Hall said.

Additional funding for other cemeteries where expansions are needed was also denied, he said.

The Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery is particularly critical not only because it creates that $5 million liability, it shuts down the cemetery, Hall said.

"Without workers or any staff, we cannot leave it open," he said. "We can't just let families drive in there. You are going to have to shut the gates."

Hall said he had no problem with the "tremendous" amount of money legislators put into the state's rainy day fund.

Nor, he said, did he necessarily disagree with lawmakers making discretionary decisions to fund pet projects.

"But when it comes to saying we are not going to bury veterans, I think you have got to have an adjustment of your values or something," Hall said. "We can do all of those other things, but we need to make room in the budget to bury our veterans. We are scrambling trying to figure out some way, trying to figure out some emergency exception.

"As it stands right now at the end of this month, that cemetery closes basically by dictate of the budget term. I don't know what we tell our veterans and their families and their widows and folks who want to go see loved one buried close by. I don't know what we tell them."

Hall said he became aware the funding was missing when the first budget outlines came out.

"They knew the funding was going to run out," he said. "We knew the funding was going to run out. We went and made several presentations to the different committees to say we need this funding so we can keep this cemetery open."

After the House and Senate budgets were proposed and the funding was not included, Hall said they returned and made presentations in person and by electronic as well as written printed handouts that specified the importance of the funding.

As such, lawmakers cannot say they were unaware of the funding need, the $5 million liability and forcing closure of the cemetery, he said.

"We provided the information and answered whatever questions were asked," Hall said. "I want to be clear about that -- we made presentations to budget committees pointing line items out. I don't want anybody to get confused and think it was refused because it wasn't requested in the governor's budget.

"It was not only requested in the governor's budget. We specially made written, printed, email, verbal presentations on this specific item over and over again. So I don't want there to be some impression created out there that we were derelict in our duty to ask for the funds or advocate for them."

North Carolina is a better state than not to honor promises made to get the grant and promises made to veterans and their families, Hall said.

House Majority Leader John Bell of Goldsboro said he is aware that the budget contains no money for the cemetery. He said he has spoken with Hall and is working to find money for the cemetery.

"There is no additional money put in there, but those positions and the way they are funded are receipt based when the services are provided out there," Bell said. "What I am working on, I am trying to identify some extra funds in the budget that I can get moved in a technical correction piece and get the veterans cemetery some additional funding so we won't have any problems there."

The funding falls under the general government subcommittee chaired by Rep. George Cleveland, Bell said.

Bell said he has not spoken with Cleveland who seemed to be under the impression the cemetery had the funds because it is a receipt-based service.

In other words, when people use the service, the cost is enough to cover the funding, he said. Bell said since he was not involved in those discussions so we could not say what happened.

"I hope he (Cleveland) is correct," Bell said.

Bell said he has told Hall he will try to find the additional funding.

However, Hall said it is not just the money. It is also the elimination of the positions.

Even if the legislature were to fund a $1 million, the cemetery could not immediately operate because the positions there have been taken "out of existence," he said.

It is a lengthy process to advertise and hire state employees, he said.

Bell said he would have to back and look at the budget on the fate of the positions.

Bell said the funding was included in a request he had made, but that it was one that didn't make the cut.

"But it is a concern of mine," he said. "That is why I was working through the budget yesterday trying to find some dollars."

Since lawmakers are still in session they could remedy the issue by passing standalone legislation restoring the positions before the budget bill goes into effect, Hall said.

Another option would be to reduce operating hours at other veteran cemeteries so that the staff could come to Goldsboro to operate the cemetery on a limited basis.

But that would create additional expenses, Hall said.

"Had they left the positions there so we could try to find funding somewhere else maybe it would be different," Hall said. "But they cut the positions. They specifically did that so again we are disappointed. We are going to have veterans now under that plan that will not be able to use a $5 million new facility. That is just devastating.

 "We were really devastated that we are now facing that dilemma where the state has decided not to bury veterans after we went through this whole process of getting a cemetery so that we could make it convenient."