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Lott Strident In Keeping Veteran Home In Gulfport

Mississippi Delegation Crafts Bill To Keep Home At Present Location.  Cost Of Rebuilding May Reach $240 Million.

By Perry Hicks- Special to GulfCoastNews 5/6/06

The growing congressional fiscal debate has once again spilled over onto the Coast with the questioned continuance of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Mississippi.

Founded originally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as the Naval Asylum in 1834, the renamed U.S. Naval Home relocated to its present site in 1976.  In 1991, the home’s charter, and consequently its name, was changed to provide refuge for retired military personnel of all services.  The facility is capable of caring for a maximum of 600 residents.

What is at stake is not just the continuance of the home in its present location, or the fate of the 11 story resident tower, but the direct Federal care of America’s war heroes.

In a telephone interview with GCN, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott acknowledged that he sees the Armed Forces Retirement Home (AFRH) report to Congress as designed to close the Gulfport site.  This apparent intent also attracted the attention of Senator Thad Cochran and the particular ire of Representative Gene Taylor.

“It is sometimes hard to explain why they (meaning the Pentagon,) do the things they do,” Senator Lott sighed, “Gene Taylor’s analysis indicates the Home could be repaired for about $50 to $60 million.”

This is an interesting sum considering the report was the product of a $45 million dollar study insisting the repair and upgrading of the 11 story residents tower would take 13 years and cost upwards of $610.34 million.

Lott has previously stated that $80 million would be more than adequate to reopen the Home as a “C-plus facility.”

When questioned about the AFRH estimates exceeding half a billion dollars, Lott waved the number aside saying, “The government has a tendency to gold plate everything.”

The report’s summary includes 5 options for dealing with the repair, complete rebuild, or abolishment of not just the Gulfport campus, but what was formerly known as the Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home in Washington, D.C.

Proposal before Congress

In the report summary from to Congress dated February 28th, 2006, five options have been sent up to Congress regarding the fate of the Gulfport campus.  As Taylor complains, only two would maintain the facility in its present location.

  • Option #1, at the total cost of $589.54 million would restore the home over a span of 6 phases.
  • Option #2, would demolish the existing tower and rebuild the home to meet both future needs and ADA compliance. The cost: $383.8 million.
  • Option #3 would align AFRH- Gulfport with something called Coastal Renewal Vision, turning AFRH-Gulfport into a “blended use” facility and ending AFRH presence on the Coast.  Price tag: $85.5 million.
  • Option #4 would relocate the facility to another undetermined location. Cost also $85.5 million.
  • Option #5 would be to abandon the Gulfport facility by selling it at fair market value with the proceeds going to the AFRH trust fund.  Cost said to be unknown but minimal.

Cited in the report’s Option 3 was property disposal in alignment with something called the “Coastal Renewal Vision.”  This option implies that after the Gulfport site is closed, residents would be kept permanently in Washington.

When asked who was promulgating said “vision,” Lott drew back admitting that he was not sure of its origin, but that he had heard it referenced several times.

“It may go back to (Gulfport) Mayor Brent Warr or even the state governor,” Lott said.

In addition to the $176 million to completely reconstruct the facility, Lott said the reallocation of existing funds would give AFRH a total of $240 million.

Starting over, the 11 story residential tower could be reconstructed, perhaps in a true campus style of multiple and lower buildings better able to weather storms and meet the future needs and expected numbers, as produced by the war on terror, of severely disabled veterans.

Senator Lott went on to say, “The Gulfport Home is situated on a magnificent location, and unlike the Washington home, its finances have actually stayed in the black.”

Non Mission Critical?

Money may well be the motivation to close the Home and move its residents to Washington, D.C.  AFRH Report Option 5’s goal is to sell the Gulfport site thus “increasing revenue for AFRH Trust Fund” and allowing AFRH to “pursue Options 3 or 4.”

While both options close the Gulfport home, Option 4 speaks to transitioning AFRH into a non-governmental, most likely non-profit, CCRC (continuing care retirement community.)  The reasoning for transferring veteran care is stated as relieving “DOD of oversight over a non mission critical activity.”

Read abandon both homes.

Closing veteran care facilities would not be an idea unique to AFRH.  Beginning in 2001, Veterans Administration (VA) began reevaluating the location and efficacy of medical centers resulting in the closure of the Gulfport center and moving some of its elements to the Biloxi VAMC.

This program could be euphemistically called CARES, Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services.  The idea was to close and or consolidate VA medical centers in order to save money and redirect services to where they are demographically most needed.

This closure resulted in greater resident reliance on AFRH medical personnel at a time when AFRH was itself cutting back- and as a result finding itself embroiled in litigation.

When Senator Lott was pressed about the reasoning for wanting to close AFRH-Gulfport, he indicated that in the past there had been a couple of issues regarding how the home was run.

“My experience is that when they (the Pentagon) see problems with an operation, their response sometimes is just to shut it down,” said Lott.

Toward the end of the interview Senator Lott became quite sanguine about the cost and intent of the passed AFRH funding explaining to GCN, “The money and language of the bill sends a message that they are not going to be able to slither away from the responsibilities we have to our veterans.”

Additional Information:

 Congressmen Inspect Military Retirement Home GCN

Another Katrina Victim: Fight to Save Naval Retirement Home Underway - GCN

Funding measures to rebuild the retirement home passed the U.S. Senate 5/4/06.

Letter from Cong. Gene Taylor to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the Retirement home.

Fact Sheet on Gulfport Military Retirement Home (.pdf file)


About the Author.....

Perry Hicks is the senior writer for GCN. He is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel. Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics. Perry is a former college professor and a frequent contributor to GCN writing on stories of national importance with local interests. His articles can be found in the GCN Archive.

Contact the Author: arielsquarefour@hotmail.com

 

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