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For all the veterans in southwest Montana, the wait has been long enough. It’s time to get their new residential home built in Butte, and this past week, House Bill 493 was introduced to get construction started.

What’s the idea? House Bill 493 (Rep. Ryan Lynch) would authorize the state to secure a short-term loan from the Montana Facility Finance Authority to cover the 65-percent federal share to build the facility. This bridge-financing makes economic sense: With low interest rates available, loan costs will be less than the increased construction costs due to inflation, especially if it takes another two or three years to secure the federal share.

As we’ve reported for a few years now federal funding for the vets home has been stalled on the priority list at the Veterans Administration. It was 2011 when Montana’s project made the list – a big deal and good news because once a project is on that list, federal funding is permanently authorized. Since then, however, Montana’s project has been repeatedly ranked too low on that list to be funded.

The VA’s ranking system is reasonable. Life safety and maintenance projects are always ranked highest, followed by renovations of existing homes. Then comes new construction projects, which are further sorted by need, and unfortunately for Montana, projects in higher population areas always ranked higher.

Sen. Tester is trying to help from another angle, getting a directive to the VA secretary to revise the ranking criteria to set limits on the maximum number of beds for each state. That should help stop big states from jumping the line on Montana.

But that’s not enough for the 34,000 veterans in southwest Montana who need this housing closer to their families and loved ones. Every year that passes translates to higher construction costs. The original project estimate was $13.9 million, assuming a 2013 construction start date; now it’s nearly $15 million and going up every day.

Except for getting the federal funds, it’s all systems go in Montana. The state has its full (35 percent) share of project funds in a reserve account established by the Legislature (in 2009), made possible through a temporary diversion of tobacco taxes.

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The project is designed: Five cottage-style homes, each with 12 bedrooms and some common space, and a community center where all residents can gather for social events. Veterans surveyed overwhelmingly prefer this type of living situation, rather than one larger building with 60+ rooms.

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By the way, that’s why suggestions about using the Copper King Inn for this vets home project have not been pursued – that and not wanting to start over, propose a completely different project, re-apply to the state, get legislation passed, send a new submittal to the federal VA, etc., and wait another five years.

Butte-Silver Bow is also prepared, fulfilling commitments as part of the site-selection process (2010). The 10-acre property on Blacktail Loop was graciously donated by Don Harrington and the McGuiness Family Trust. The public sewer and water utility extensions are engineered and will be installed by city-county crews, using Hard Rock tax proceeds reserved and approved by the Council of Commissioners.

Now comes HB 493. It’s good business and great timing. The Montana Facility Financing Authority is set up to provide this type of low interest loan, secured with the federal funding commitment and an extension of the tobacco tax set-aside. This construction loan would be paid back in full.

The legislation will take at least a two-thirds vote to pass, More than half (82 out of 150) of the legislators have already signed on as co-sponsors, and the public hearing will be scheduled soon – likely in the coming week. Please come testify if you can.

We can do this for Montana veterans. In honor of Don Harrington, and on behalf of Bobby Pavlovich and other veterans who have been tireless advocates for the project, let’s get this done.

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Senate Minority Leader, Jon C. Sesso, on behalf of the entire southwest Montana legislative delegation from Beaverhead, Deer Lodge, Jefferson, Madison, Powell and Silver Bow Counties.

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