Nebraska city considers state ownership of veterans cemetery in need of maintenance
By JEFF BAHR | The Grand Island Independent | Published: July 19, 2020
GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — The condition of the headstones and grave markers at the Nebraska Veterans Memorial Cemetery is not a new issue.
Some Grand Island residents aren't happy about the way a few of the headstones lean at the cemetery. Some of the markers also need work.
"We've known that for 30 years," Hall County Veterans Service Officer Don Shuda told The Grand Island Independent.
Since early this year, the city of Grand Island has held the title to the cemetery.
If state Sen. Dan Quick and local veterans supporters have their way, the land will become a state cemetery.
The process may take five or six years. But if it happens, Quick feels that leaning headstones will be a thing of the past.
Quick carried the bill, LB911, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Brewer, chair of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. Several other senators have signed on.
If passed, LB911 will start the process of turning the Veterans Cemetery and adjacent land into a state cemetery.
The bill would begin the process of finding out the cost of the conversion. Once that information is obtained, the state then could apply for federal money.
Making the land a state cemetery is "just a great way to honor our veterans," Quick said.
Shuda and other veterans have been working hard with Quick to make the transition happen.
"It's been a successful venture so far," Shuda said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts supports the bill, Shuda said. So does John Hilgert, director of the Nebraska Department of Veterans' Affairs.
Shuda would like to see a state veterans cemetery in Central Nebraska. That achievement would "put Grand Island back on the map in supporting veterans and having a place for veterans to have eternal rest," he said.
The Nebraska Veterans Cemetery in Alliance is a state cemetery. National cemeteries in the state are the Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell and two properties in the Omaha area.
The Grand Island City Council and Hall County Commission have gone on record in support of LB911.
Quick is hopeful that the bill will be approved during the legislative sessions that begins July 20.
Some additional acreage may be added to the Veterans Cemetery if its ownership is transferred to the state.
If the state takes ownership, more people could be buried in the cemetery than is currently allowed, Shuda and Quick said.
The city would benefit from not having to worry about maintaining the Veterans Cemetery, said City Administrator Jerry Janulewicz.
State cemeteries are typically eligible for federal grant money to help develop and upgrade those facilities. "That's all part of it," Janulewicz said.
Quick's bill would require a state agency to apply for that federal funding.
If there are problems with leaning headstones and related issues, that's the condition the cemetery was in "when it was conveyed by the state to the city," Janulewicz said.
In agreeing to take over the cemetery, the city consented to bury 14 people whose burial the state had approved.
At this point, burying additional people would be a decision made by the City Council.
If the transition to state ownership goes through, Quick feels that the deterioration of headstones will stop. He said he believes the memorials will be aligned and improved to fit federal standards.
In putting together the bill, Quick met with local officials and veterans groups.
He also worked with Hilgert and the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services.
The goal was "to make sure when we put this bill in we were talking to everybody that might be involved," he said.
"That's what making a bill is all about, is having a group from your constituents come to you and say, 'We'd like to see this happen' and then me being able to help them with the process and bring that forward," Quick said.
He was proud "that they asked me to carry that bill and then work with the city of Grand Island to make sure that we could address everybody's issues to make sure that we did it the right way."
Grand Island Parks and Recreation contracts the maintenance of Veterans Cemetery with a private contractor. "And actually we think he's doing a really good job," said Parks and Recreation Director Todd McCoy. He mows and fertilizes the grass, does the trim work and does "general maintenance of the property," he said.
"And, yes, the headstones are going to be an ongoing issue," he said, adding that they've been an issue for a number of years.
But as long as the city is responsible for maintaining Veterans Cemetery, it will do the work "the best we can. And we will continue to make sure it's a high priority," McCoy said.
The city is responsible for one other graveyard, the 90-acre City Cemetery on Stolley Park Road.