Democratic Waupaca Mayor Brian Smith is calling out Gov. Scott Walker and state lawmakers for failing to provide more than $18 million to address maintenance issues at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King.
Last year the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates King, requested $18.5 million in Walker’s 2015-17 budget to pay for updates to the home located between Stevens Point and Oshkosh.
The agency wanted the money for new cooking equipment, proper lighting at building exits, an upgraded fire alarm panel in the residence halls and new generators for Ainsworth and MacArthur Halls. It also asked for funds to replace aged and stained ceiling tiles that "raise infection control issues" and repairs to the medication room in the MacArthur Hall nurses station, according to its request.
Walker did not fund WDVA's request in his budget proposal to the Legislature, so it was not addressed by the Joint Finance Committee, which reviews and amends the budget before both chambers approve it and Walker signs it into law.
Smith, whose wife works at the King veterans home, is running for state Senate against Republican incumbent Sen. Luther Olsen. Olsen has called for an audit of the home.
The Walker administration acknowledged that the $18.5 million request was not in the budget, but said since the spending plan was signed in 2015, Walker has authorized $5 million of the original $18.5 million request to fund some King upgrades, said Walker spokesman Tom Evenson.
The $5 million was drawn from a general pool of money for state building maintenance that comes from a variety of state and federal revenue streams. The Department of Veterans Affairs is able to request more funding for projects in the current budget cycle and will be able to continue to make requests in the next budget, Evenson said.
He said since Walker took office, he has invested nearly $100 million in King improvements. In 2014 Walker authorized $80 million for a new skilled nursing facility at King, with federal grants covering 65 percent of that cost.
"His priority is providing top quality care and services for our veterans," Evenson said.
Criticism from Smith over the lack of budget funding for King upgrades comes after reporting by the Cap Times revealed concerns about the quality of care, staffing shortages and outdated facilities there. Some residents, employees and volunteers at King say conditions have deteriorated even as the home brings in millions in excess revenue each year. King currently has $39 million in excess revenue, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs have said the agency plans to transfer $18.6 million in surplus revenue from its veterans nursing homes to the Veterans Trust Fund, which funds other veterans benefits and administrative salaries.
Smith said the revenue transfers from the home are raids and said surpluses from the homes should not be used to backfill a budget shortfall.
State lawmakers on the Joint Finance Committee could have noted the request from WDVA and put it into the budget, but did not do that, Smith said.
“Rather than raiding $18 million from our veteran nursing homes like politicians have proposed, we should use those dollars to protect our veterans and improve their care,” Smith said in a statement Thursday.
Olsen said the request for maintenance upgrades at King was never presented to lawmakers to consider. Otherwise, the committee likely would have voted to fund the upgrades, he said.
“I wish the governor would have moved it forward,” Olsen said.
The Walker administration said it has been proactive in funding improvements at King, spending more than his predecessor, Jim Doyle.
“Gov. Walker has invested nearly $100 million into improvements for King since taking office,” Evenson said in an email. The Doyle administration earmarked $7.5 million between 2005 and 2011, he said.
Both administrations have endorsed the transfer of excess money from the homes, though during the Walker era more money has been transferred as the homes have brought in more money.
Lawmakers from both parties have endorsed a legislative audit of King as well as an investigation of the home by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.