06/30/17 — Legislators pledge support to cemetery

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Legislators pledge support to cemetery

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 30, 2017 6:57 AM

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Sen. Don Davis

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Rep. Jimmy Dixon

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Rep. John Bell

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Sen. Louis Pate

Members of Wayne County's legislative delegation say that errors on the part of Gov. Roy Cooper's staff and politics are to blame for the controversy surrounding the Eastern North Carolina State Veterans Cemetery.

Cooper's office and Larry D. Hall, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, counter that the problem rests with the General Assembly's initial failure to fund the cemetery in its budget.

But that aside, the cemetery is not closing as had been feared by some.

Sen. Don Davis of Snow Hill, whose District 5 includes Goldsboro, was responsible for offering an amendment Tuesday to an existing veterans bill prohibiting the closure of any state-owned veterans cemeteries.

It requires as well that the cemeteries continue to maintain their current level of operations.

It was approved by a 48-0 vote.

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

House Majority Leader John Bell of Goldsboro said the county's entire legislative delegation worked on the fix, and singled out Davis for his efforts.

Speaking between votes Wednesday afternoon, Bell said language in the amendment will ensure the Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery will stay open.

Cooper's office and Hall say it fails to clean up the long-term funding issue.

"We owe it to our veterans and their families to look them in the eye and tell the truth," Davis said. "The truth is the cemetery is not closing. The truth is there is no legislator I am aware of, and especially no one in our legislative delegation, wishing for the cemetery to close. We want to honor our veterans and their families as they so deserve.

"We must be perfectly clear how we got here. The Office of State Budget and Management received two different directives to realign the department's base budget and for whatever reason failed to do so. They simply dropped the ball."

Ford Porter, a spokesman for Cooper, said he does not know what Davis is referring to since the governor's budget included nearly $600,000 for the state-owned veterans cemeteries.

Hall said the lack of funding got the Goldsboro cemetery was pointed out to legislators on several occasions.

"As a former mortuary officer in the U.S. Air Force responsible for burying many veterans, I have the highest respect for our veterans and their families," Davis said. "They have sacrificed and earned these benefits.

"I was totally caught off guard and unaware of any intent to announce a possible closure of the cemetery. I first learned about this in the newspaper."

The state's veterans and active duty service members should always be held with the utmost respect, Bell said.

"Political gamesmanship should never interfere with the way in which we honor the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice to preserve and protect the safety and freedom of our nation," Bell said.

"I sincerely apologize for the uneasiness this incident has caused the families of our fallen heroes, and I want to make it very clear that I will do everything in my power as your representative to keep the Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery up and running."

Sen. Louis Pate of Mount Olive said legislators were pleased they were able to identify and correct the problem in the governor's base budget to ensure the cemetery will remain open.

"While we don't believe the Cooper administration officials who caused this problem did so intentionally, we hope they will be more careful before taking hasty political shots and causing unnecessary anxiety among veterans' families in our community," Pate said.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Mount Olive said that at best the issue is a "gross misrepresentation of the facts" and at worst a "deliberate and flagrant political attack" on the entire veteran community.

"It should have never happened," he said. "It has happened, and I can assure you that we will take corrective action that will eventually show there was no problem to start with. The cemetery will not be closed and life will return to normal."

Dixon said he has been told by staff that the money was there and had always been there.

However, because of the way the Office of Budget Management sets spending guidelines, Larry D. Hall, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, chose to say he was $200,000 short when in fact he has a $1.3 million surplus, Dixon said.

Dixon said he was not familiar with Hall's assertions that the positions at the cemetery had been eliminated and could not comment on that.

But Dixon said he did not think that was accurate.