While the first burials in a new Western New York veterans' cemetery may begin by the end of 2020, the next phase of the project is now rescheduled to start 2022, and some elements of the cemetery will not be finished for several more years. Veterans were among those airing their thoughts - and discontent - at a Wednesday afternoon public hearing in Corfu.
More than 200 veterans and family members packed the Pembroke Community Center, where officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Cemetery Administration offered updates on the overall project and fielded questions and comments from the audience.
The cemetery, under its original plan, was intended to hold the remains of more than 8,600 deceased veterans by 2022. However, construction has since been broken into phases. Ann Marie Abshire, of the VA's Construction and Facilities Management, admitted a part of the holdup is funding.
In August, Senator Charles Schumer announced $23.3 million had been awarded for construction of the Pembroke site. Project planners say an additional $10 million is needed.
In the meantime, Abshire offered another reason why they're holding construction in stages.
"We want the internments and ceremonies to be able to take place without having so much underway at the same time," she said. "To have safety, to have the right level of decorum, to be able to stop everything and shut down for a few minutes while a service takes place."
The first burials on the property are anticipated by November 2020. Later steps in the cemetery project include construction of a columbarium, a structure where cremated remains are kept, and a facility where funeral services may be held. Work on those structures, though, may not begin until 2022 at the earliest.
There is also a plan to build a shelter for those who serve in the color guards and honor guards at veterans' funerals. In the short term, they'll be housed in a trailer. Gary Gardner, one of the veterans in the audience, says given the difficult task these guards have - often times serving at multiple funerals in one given day - completing that facility should be a top priority.
Those who serve in the honor guards, he suggested, deserve a more comfortable space as they prepare to carry out such a critical part of a veteran's burial.
"It's a very stressful thing," he said. "It's not like something where everybody is going to be back, sitting in the tailgate and waiting for the next one. These guys need a place to go in, hang their hat. If it gets to be too much for them, to relax, have food and drink, (use the) facilities or have something to lay down on. This is hard. You're talking a lot of funerals going on. You can't put them in a trailer."
Some comments were more sharply critical. Patrick Welch, a veteran and longtime advocate for his peers, took exception to the rising price tag.
"The GAO (Government Accountability Office) just came out with a report that eviscerated your agency for your inability to budget properly," Welch said. "The cemetery's running 200 percent over your estimates. How is it, with all your construction expertise, you so grossly underestimated the cost of building this facility?"
The rising costs, it was answered, are blamed in underestimating the price of the fill needed to build the cemetery to a proper level.
"The second thing is that both of the bidders were quite a bit above the government estimate," Abshire added. "In the second round that we came out with, we found we got much more reasonable pricing, I think, because we got a local contractor."
State Senator Chris Jacobs, who is running for a congressional district that includes the site of the cemetery, was among elected officials in attendance. So, too, was Assemblyman Stephen Hawley, whose 139th District also covers the territory. A representative of Senator Schumer was also present.
Following a veteran's call to the audience to speak through their votes, and register if they are not signed up to vote, Hawley credited Schumer and President Donald Trump for expressing concerns for funding. He then urged those in the room to continue the pressure on those elected officials and others.
"I urge all of you not only do you register to vote, but today when you leave here, email Senator Schumer. Email President Trump," Hawley said. "I emailed his liaison in the White House this afternoon on my way back from West Seneca about this very issue. If it's the money, it shouldn't matter. We need to take care of our veterans."