COLUMBIA — Plans for three new nursing homes for South Carolina veterans are proceeding after lawmakers agreed Wednesday to cover a large shortfall — but not without a complaint about their locations.
The Department of Mental Health plans to seek bids later this month for building veterans' homes in Richland, Florence and Cherokee counties. A legislative panel that reviews agencies' building requests gave advance approval to meet federal deadlines.
"This is so desperately needed for veterans around our state," said Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, who also leads the Joint Bond Review Committee. He made the motion to approve.
Veterans Affairs will decide by early April whether to provide about $87 million toward the projects. The state has already set aside $42 million.
But about $37 million more is needed because of increased construction costs since the mental health agency initially applied for a VA grant in April 2015. The actual amount will depend on bids.
Federal approval didn't come until last April, which started the design phase. While that meant the VA agreed to fund up to 65 percent, its commitment is tied to preliminary estimates, said Ken Roey, the project manager.
The planned homes are expected to be at or near capacity as soon as their doors open, which could be in summer 2021.
The three existing nursing homes — in Columbia, Walterboro and Anderson — are at capacity with 530 people total. More than 1,000 additional veterans want to live at the high-quality, low-cost homes, said Roey, a 26-year Navy veteran.
Veterans who can afford it pay $34 a day. Veterans Affairs will potentially cover expenses for others, Roey said.
Each of the new homes will house 104 veterans, meeting less than a third of the existing need.
Before applying for the federal grant, officials considered building one large home in Columbia but instead opted for several locations around the state to better serve veterans and their families, said Senate Labor Commerce and Industry Chairman Thomas Alexander, R-Walhalla.
"We have a proud state and a lot of veterans in this state, and we want to take care of their needs," he said. "I see this as a phase, with the understanding more will be needed in the future."
Those future nursing homes need to be near military bases other than just Fort Jackson, said Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter.
South Carolina is home to eight military installations — in Beaufort, Charleston, Richland and Sumter counties — and 417,500 veterans statewide, according to the South Carolina Military Base Task Force, created to help maintain the state’s military presence.
Smith said he didn't want to slow down current projects, but he's "deeply disturbed the sites don't include portions of our military communities — the Lowcountry, or something like that."
"We've worked hard at being military friendly," he said. "In the future, we need to look and make sure we take care of counties with military installations. They need to make sure there's sufficient resources to take care of them in their time of need ... so those families don't have to travel to see their loved one."
He also warned the Department of Mental Health that there's a limit to his budget-writing committee's support.
"We're watching, and you don't have a blank check," Smith told Roey. "There's going to be zero tolerance of cost overruns. Don't come in on the cheap and think we’ll take care of you on the back end."
Gov. Henry McMaster's budget proposal, released Tuesday, included $40 million for the three nursing homes.