Veterans clinic, columbarium stalled in Congress

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has still not received its 2016 budget allocation of $70 million to build new facilities at Alameda Point, nine months after the federal budget was signed into law on December 18, 2015. Efforts in the House and Senate to authorize getting the VA’s money released were hindered in July when Senate Republicans attached a bill to fund stopping the spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus to the VA construction bill.

The Zika bill included restrictions that do not allow the use of Zika funds at Planned Parenthood clinics and a waiver on following Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines for pesticide spraying to kill mosquitoes. Senate Democrats prevented passage of the Zika/VA bill by voting against it, due to the Planned Parenthood and EPA clauses. Both parties are pointing fingers.

Alameda Point Veterans Affairs facility. Oakland Estuary in background. Columbarium will be to the left.
Alameda Point Veterans Affairs facility. Oakland Estuary in background. Columbarium will be to the left.

“Unfortunately, federal funding for Alameda Point has become a victim of the do nothing Republican Congress,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee. “As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I fought to ensure that these funds were appropriated to ensure high-quality and timely healthcare services for our veterans. Sadly, the other party’s unwillingness to work across the aisle has stopped the authorization of funding from moving forward.”

The VA’s 2016 construction funding for major projects came with new restrictions after massive cost overruns at its Denver hospital project. All construction projects over $100 million have to be turned over to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for management. Congress also stipulated that the VA would have to return to House and Senate veterans committees for special approval to release the funding.

Efforts in Congress to meet these requirements began in early January. By May 19, the Senate unanimously approved legislation introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein that provided the required authorization. A month later, the House passed similar legislation.

But hopes for release of funds were dashed in early July when the Zika virus funding bill was attached to the VA funding. Democrats in Congress viewed the move as a ploy by Republicans to force Democrats into choosing between Planned Parenthood and veterans. Republicans also objected to appropriating over $1 billion in Zika virus funds under emergency provisions that left Congress with little oversight and review. They claimed that a smaller amount would suffice until the normal budget hearing process.

The Congressional funding impasse is expected to be resolved in the coming week with a stopgap spending bill called a continuing resolution. If nothing is done by September 30, the government will shut down. A continuing resolution will keep the federal government operating until the end of the year and presumably facilitate the release of VA construction funding.

The VA construction bill includes seismic upgrade and new construction projects in California totaling $563 million, along with $169 million in other states. “I continue working very closely with Senators Feinstein and Boxer to quickly address this authorization issue so this important project can move forward,” said Representative Lee.

Courtyard at Alameda Point veterans clinic and administration offices.
Courtyard at Alameda Point veterans clinic and administration offices.

The VA received $17 million for Alameda Point in 2011. To date, $4 million of that allocation has been spent on planning. The VA did not request any funds in fiscal years 2012 through 2015. The 2016 budget allocation will allow for site preparation, a new public roadway and infrastructure to the site, and wetland mitigation. No funds were requested in the 2017 budget. The total cost of the project is pegged at $240 million. Additional funds will be requested as progress is made.

VA Project Site - Alameda Point

The Navy transferred 624 acres of the former airfield to the VA in 2014. The clinic and columbarium will occupy 112 acres. The remaining 512 acres will remain undeveloped and was zoned Nature Reserve by the city in 2013.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

Update – September 24, 2016:  A vote on the VA construction funding and Zika control funding is scheduled in the Senate for Tuesday, September 27.

Alameda Point on San Francisco Bay marked by blue pin. Google Earth map.
Alameda Point on San Francisco Bay marked by blue pin. Google Earth map.

Author: richard94501

My blog is Alameda Point Environmental Report covering environmental issues from wildlife to cleanup at the former Navy base in Alameda now called Alameda Point. Articles on my blog are frequently printed in the Alameda Sun newspaper. I also host a Twitter site and a Flickr photo site. I hope you find my stories and photos of interest. Richard Bangert Alameda, California

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