06/28/17 — Senate passes amendment to keep open veterans cemeteries, governor's office argues long-term funding issue remains unsolved

View Archive

Senate passes amendment to keep open veterans cemeteries, governor's office argues long-term funding issue remains unsolved

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 28, 2017 5:40 PM

Full Size


Mathew Stallings places flowers on his grandfather's grave in the Eastern North Carolina Veterans Cemetery Thursday afternoon as his brother Michael Ovitt, and mother, Allyson Stallings, watch.

As six-year-old Mathew Stallings was kneeling Thursday afternoon to place flowers at his grandfather's grave, politicians in Raleigh were busy jockeying to assign blame or take credit for funding the Eastern North Carolina State Veterans Cemetery.

The funding was not part of the Republican-controlled General Assembly's budget prompting Larry D. Hall, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, to say last Friday that the cemetery would have to close at the end of the month.

However, Tuesday evening, the state Senate unanimously adopted an amendment to a veterans education bill that will keep the cemetery open and operational.

The House passed the same amended bill 115-0 Wednesday.

House Majority Leader John Bell of Goldsboro said it includes language to ensure that the situation does not happen again.

It now goes to Cooper.

The rub, for Hall and Gov. Roy Cooper's office, is that they contend it does not solve the long-term funding issue.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Don Davis, D-Snow Hill, does not appropriate any funding.

Rather it prohibits the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs from closing any state-owned veterans cemeteries, while continuing to operate and maintain the current level of operations at each of those cemeteries.

It also requires that the state Office of Budget and Management realign the department's base budget for the 2017-2019 fiscal biennium to increase receipts and include the operational costs of the Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery.

Uncertainty over the cemetery's fate has stirred a public backlash.

Stallings, and his 19-year-old brother Michael Ovitt, who plans to join the Army, were with their mother, Allyson, at the cemetery.

Initially, her father, USAF retired Master Sgt. Roger Wass, was laid to rest in the Coastal Carolina Veterans Cemetery in Jacksonville in 2011.

"As soon as I became aware of the opening of the Eastern Carolina Veterans Cemetery in Goldsboro, I made arrangements to have him moved so that my mother and I would not have to drive an hour to visit him," she said. "My mother and I are the only family left in North Carolina, and Goldsboro has always been my family's home base to get together.

"I am extremely confident that my father smiled the day I brought him back to Goldsboro. As a family member directly affected by this, I am truly disappointed and insulted by the fact that funding was deliberately taken out of the budget."

Mrs. Stallings called that action an "unfathomable betrayal."

"I am hoping that things will get straightened out, and that the awesome employees managing the cemetery are able to keep their jobs," she said.

In a statement released late Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Burger blamed Cooper's staff for the funding not being in the budget.

"In its 2015 biennial budget, the General Assembly provided $250,000 to cover operating costs of the cemetery on a nonrecurring basis for each fiscal year of the biennium and directed that receipts cover those costs going forward," Berger said.

"The state veterans' cemeteries have generated close to a million dollars in revenues this fiscal year, but Gov. Cooper's Office of State Budget and Management failed to update their base budget to account for that figure."

In addition, the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs has about $500,000 of unspent funds at the end of the fiscal year which could have been used upon the request of Hall and with approval of Office of State Budget and Management toward funding for the Goldsboro cemetery, Berger said.

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said a receipt-based cemetery lacked stability of budgeted funding.

Porter said that the response of legislators has ranged from them not knowing the money was needed -- despite Cooper's budget request and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs requesting it on several occasions -- to those who thought there was plenty of money.

Then there is the "bizarre release" from Berger's office about the governor's budget, he said.

"That threw me for a loop," Porter said. "How does this make sense from the basic premise the Republicans base their budget on our budget? They make a huge show of pointing out that they don't do that. The governor's budget did include $578,000 for veterans cemeteries including Goldsboro."

Yet, legislators failed to include these funds in the House budget, the Senate budget or the Conference Budget, Porter said.

Following public outcry, legislators pointed fingers, unbelievably arguing that the issue was somehow Cooper's fault, but failed to fix the underlying problem, ordering the cemetery to remain open without providing recurring funding to do so, Porter said.

"Their alleged solution robs Peter to pay Paul, and legislators should quit the games and provide the funds needed to operate this property as Governor Cooper's budget did," he said.

Hall told the News-Argus last Friday that the state budget does not include the $200,000 needed to cover the next two years of operations for the maintenance at the cemetery.

The budget also eliminates the jobs at the cemetery, he said.

Both were asked for in Cooper's budget and were requested by his department on numerous occasions, Hall said.

The lack of funding and the elimination of the jobs means the cemetery would have to be closed at the end of the month, Hall said. Also, there would be no more burials there and people could not visit the graves of loved ones already buried there, he said.

The state will also have to repay the $5 million federal grant used to construct the cemetery, Hall said.

"I'm a Marine, so I know how to tough it out and find solutions in hard times," he said Wednesday. "But there is no reason to shortchange our veterans right now. They gave their good and faithful service to our state, country and their communities.

"I'm glad legislators now understand the importance of paying for employees and expenses required to keep this cemetery open."

However, paying for it from veterans' burial fees is a short-term solution that short-changes veterans' cemetery needs in the future, he said.

"They are ultimately cutting veterans' services and that is neither sustainable nor responsible," Hall said. "North Carolina veterans' services should be above partisan politics."