Larry Herke, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs was the keynote speaker at a meeting held to discuss the status of the Montevideo Veterans Home Project. The meeting was held on Tuesday at the Training And Community Center (TACC).
Among the dignitaries in attendance were State Representative Time Miller, State Senator Andrew Lang, Montevideo Veterans Home Project Committee Chair Marv Garbe, Montevideo Mayor Jim Curtiss, local VA Administrator Tim Kolhei, and Chippewa County Auditor/Treasure Michelle May.
Herke, a retired colonel with 31 years of active duty experience had news for the audience. He said: “You’ve heard that, back in May, we did all the right things to meet the 1st of April requirement. I am pleased to announce that we are now on the new construction list!
“The good news is that we’re being asked a lot of questions by the Federal VA about our application. Anytime you are being asked about something, that’s good news! That means they are interested, they think you’re a player, and they think you have a possibility of moving forward!”
Herke recently traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with VA officials. “I explained where we were with the project, because we’re a bit further along than most would be. A lot of states don’t have the design funding that Minnesota has,” he said.
When working with the Federal government, every thing must be done by the book. “We’ve done the entire front side of the check list,” Herke said, “as well as most of the back side, and we are working ahead of schedule on some of the items that have to go through my office.”
The design phase of the project has been moving right along. “You saw some illustrations the last time we were all here that were at most 15 percent complete. We’re beyond 50 percent and moving quickly forward to 100 percent,” said Herke.
The state VA office has been staying on top of all three veterans home projects in Minnesota, and Herke has high hopes he projects will clear all the Federal VA hurdles. “The official notification will come sometime in January, so I want to assure you that we are on track with, and have met all the requirements. My job as commissioner is to take the money provided by the state government, and the money provided by local governments, and come up with a plan that will actually work,” said Herke.
Herke’s good news was tempered by a construction budget report. “I received this summary on August 7,” he said. It indicated that, when I received the cost assessment, we were over budget by $10,730,375,” said Herke.
Herke and his team had some decisions to make, as well as find ways to trim the project a bit. He said: “We discussed what was most important for our veterans. I can assure you, that the design is almost exactly the way you saw it before.”
Some things were eliminated, others had to be scaled back. “We had to make the sun rooms smaller, but the court yards are still in place, as well as all the amenities of the court yards. I still had to trim $10 million.
“These veterans homes are important for their communities. We’re still looking at 200 square feet per room. We still have all private rooms. We still have bathrooms in each room. We still have 18 veterans per household. The nursing stations and all supporting facilities are exactly the same as before.”
What was trimmed largely had to do with downsizing some spaces, as well as coming some offices. “We also eliminated a lot of external amenities. The total square footage reduction was 13,600 square feet.”
Rep. Miller spoke up and questioned why there was such a big disparity with the numbers. He said: “Ten million is a really big miss. the original numbers were based on, A, pre-design, and B, standardized numbers. is that what happened there? When the actual numbers were used, it jumped by ten million?”
Herke replied: “It’s one of the largest numbers that I’ve ever had gone wrong on a project. I think, since 2018, the price of materials has gone up, also, labor in Greater Minnesota was underestimated. So those were probably the two biggest factors that contributed to the larger estimate.”
The total reduction to the construction budget amounted to $14,600, which brought the budget in line with the pre-design budget.
The discussion continued for some time, dealing mostly with changes to the plans in order to come in at or under budget. The construction budget currently stands at $38,700,000, and the construction company is planning on getting the project in January, 2020. A tentative start date for construction to begin has been set for May of 2020. The facility is now expected to be opened to residents in 2022.
After the meeting, Rep. Miller shared some thoughts. He said: “Today’s meeting was encouraging. When you start getting into the details, and start hearing about budget cuts, it can be discouraging. What I’ve really appreciated throughout this entire process is that we have truly managed to stay focused. We do have agencies, politicians, local authorities, state and national agencies, contractors, you name it.
"It’s a difficult process to work through, but we’ve managed to keep things on track, keep things on the level. There have been no hurt feelings, and I really attribute that to the leadership on this Veterans Home Project. This is how government is supposed to work. I think things are going well!”
Montevideo Mayor Jim Curtiss added: “Not only will this help the veterans, because they do come first, but this will be a great benefit to Montevideo!”
For now, the Montevideo Veterans Home project continues to move forward, as all parties concerned anxiously await the potential awarding of the project in January.