A roomful of veterans and their supporters asked a legislative committee Friday to approve a “bridge loan” of up to $10 million to help pay for construction of a new veterans’ home in Butte until the federal government comes up with its share of the money.
More than 20 people testified before the House Appropriations Committee in support of House Bill 493, by Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte. Many wore their veterans’ caps and jackets.
It calls for the Montana Facility Financing Authority to provide the loan, secured with the federal funding commitment and an extension of a set-aside of the state tobacco tax. The construction loan would be paid back in full when U.S. Veterans Administration provides its share of the money.
Lynch said the federal government will pay 65 percent of the $15 million project, while the state has already come forward with its $5 million share. The facility already has been designed to go on a 10-acre parcel of land donated by Don Harrington. The Butte-Silver Bow local government has used part of its share of hard-rock mining taxes to prepare the water and sewer connections.
The project has been authorized for funding by the VA and is on the VA priority list, but repeatedly been ranked too low by the federal agency to be funded.
Frustrated by the delay, Butte legislators and elected local officials and veterans are turning to the bridge loan to get moving on the project.
“When a friend or neighbor needs help, we step up,” Lynch said.
Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte, said Montana has more than 100,000 veterans or about 10 percent of its total population, for one of the highest percentages nationally. Of that total, 34,000 veterans are in southwestern Montana.
Sesso went through how the project would be funded with the bridge loan and pleaded for support for the veterans, saying: “They stepped up for us. It’s time to step up for them.”
Former state Rep. Bob Pavlovich, D-Butte, served on a committee with representatives from multiple southwestern Montana counties that ultimately picked Butte as the site for the veterans’ home in 2010.
“We are waiting for the one in Butte to be built because we hope to be there someday,” he said.
World War II veteran Dan Antonetti of Helena said, “This bill is important for Montana as it assists Montana veterans with health care needs.”
Eileen Greb, a retired Navy nurse from Butte, said, “The people in Butte, the veterans, need this and they can’t wait forever.”
The plans show the veterans’ home would consist of five 12-bed cottages and a central area for its administration.
Matt Vincent, chief executive of Butte-Silver Bow city and county, said, “We need to get this thing done. These ladies and gentlemen have been waiting long enough. This is a Montana solution to a problem that’s going on in Washington. We can’t wait any longer. The cost of construction keeps going up.”
Mike Lawson, a veterans’ leader from Butte, said, “This isn’t only about Butte and the six counties in southwestern Montana. It’s for veterans from all over the state.”
He added, “It’s shovel-ready. We’re ready. The only thing we’re waiting on is the federal government. What we’re after is to get immediate action.”
When he got his draft notice, Melvin Kieninger of Butte said he signed his name on a line.
“That meant we were willing to do anything,” he said. “The same with volunteers. We are asking no less of you.”
Jim Smitham, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp., said the facility will be important for veterans in southwestern Montana. The only two options now for veterans who need more care now are veterans’ homes in Columbia Falls, 240 miles from Butte, and Glendive, 440 miles away.
“I believe the veterans of southwestern Montana have waited long enough,” Smitham said. “Many of the veterans who could have used this are no longer with us.”
No one testified against the bill.
The committee didn’t vote on the bill immediately. To pass, it will require the votes of two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate because it involves the state going into debt until the federal share is forthcoming.