New York is on the verge of selecting the first state veterans cemetery, and it will likely be located in the Finger Lakes region.
Sampson Veterans Memorial Cemetery is the clear front-runner after the state Division of Veterans' Services issued a report recommending the Seneca County site for the designation. A nine-member selection committee will meet Monday and is expected to vote on whether to name Sampson, which is in the town of Romulus, as the first state veterans cemetery.
It would be an important milestone for the cemetery, which opened in 2011 and is operated by Seneca County.
Joel Evans, executive deputy director of the state Division of Veterans' Service, told the selection committee at its first meeting Monday, May 17, that there were 11 responses to a request for information that was issued in February. One of the proposals, which suggested the creation of a state veterans cemetery near the new Western New York National Cemetery in Genesee County, was deemed to be ineligible because the respondents weren't affiliated with a local government.
Out of the remaining 10 submissions, one stood out: Sampson.
What separated Sampson from other proposals is that it's already in operation. The state Division of Veterans' Services' report explained that the cemetery is in "full compliance with National Cemetery Administration standards," which means that "there would be no cost to construct the cemetery and the state would not need to certify that it has 10% of the construction costs in matching funds" — a requirement for federal grants.
According to the report, the cemetery hosts 300 interments annually and would initially use 15 acres of land for 6,000 gravesites. The cemetery's master plan and schematic design, the report continues, "allow for a phased approach, constructing seamless expansions as demand and need arise." There will be a "minimal cost" for developing other sections of the cemetery when more space is needed.
The cemetery, a 162-acre site on land that was part of the Sampson Air Force Base and Sampson Naval Training Station, has the capacity for 80,000 gravesites.
Bob Becker, a Schenectady resident and Marine Corps veteran who is one of the nine selection committee members, agreed with the division's recommendation.
"I'm glad that (Sampson is) on the top of the list here," he said. "I think that's probably the ideal spot because it's already prepared."
There were other factors considered by the division before it made its recommendation. Unlike other submissions, Sampson has an actual budget. The cemetery's annual maintenance and operations costs are $132,872. It also receives an average of $16,669 in local donations each year.
Sampson would serve the largest veteran population, according to the division's report. There are 131,254 veterans who live within 75 miles of the cemetery. The next closest competitor is the proposed Oneida County site, which would serve 118,788 veterans.
For most of the proposed cemetery sites, it would take at least one year before they could host their first burial. A few of the submissions either didn't respond or said it's unclear when they would begin to host burials. Because Sampson is already in operation, there wouldn't be a long wait. Seneca County said in its submission that it would take one day from the date of the National Cemetery Administration grant to its first burial.
There wouldn't be any construction costs if Sampson is selected, which gives it an advantage over its competitors. Three of the proposed sites — Clinton County, Oneida County and the town of Ripley in Chautauqua County — estimated that construction of the cemeteries could cost over $1 million. Three other proposals — Chenango County, the town of Long Lake and the town of Wappinger — would have six-figure price tags.
If Sampson is selected as the first state veterans cemetery, it would be transferred to the state at no cost.
"If you look at the dollar signs, Seneca is looking pretty good there," Becker said.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo included the creation of a state veterans cemetery in his 2020 State of the State agenda. His administration worked with the state Legislature to develop a site selection process. The product of that is the selection committee, which is led by Evans. Jesse Olczak, who is representing state Budget Director Robert Mujica, is also a member.
Cuomo named three other members of the selection committee: RoAnn Destito, commissioner of the state Office of General Services; Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and an Army veteran; and Maj. Gen. Raymond Shields, the adjutant general of New York.
The state legislative leaders each filled two seats on the committee. Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins appointed Becker and Tarrytown Mayor Thomas Butler, who served in the U.S. Army for 35 years. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie didn't make his appointments until after the first meeting. He announced on Thursday that James Bass, a Vietnam War veteran from Syracuse, and Sergio Villaverde, a Bronx resident who served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, will join the committee.
The selection committee nearly made its decision at the inaugural meeting. Becker was ready to select Sampson as the first state veterans cemetery, but Destito thought the vote should be delayed until the Assembly's appointees could participate in the discussion.
Barring any changes, a vote is likely at the committee's next meeting on Monday.
There is another reason why the selection committee could act quickly. Evans said that there is a July 1 deadline for submitting applications to the National Cemetery Administration for review and approval. If the state can submit its application by July 1, it could receive federal funds beginning in September 2022. Otherwise, it would have to wait until next year to submit the application. If that happens, the grants wouldn't be available until 2023.
After the selection committee's decision, there are certain requirements that the state Division of Veterans' Services must meet before submitting its application. The heads of three agencies — the veterans' services division, the state Office of General Services and the chair of the Department of State's cemeteries division — must determine the costs of operating the state veterans cemetery for 10 years. The budget director and state comptroller must certify that the funds are available to cover the costs, then the veterans' services division can submit its pre-application for federal funding to support the state veterans cemetery.
"If the committee is able to reach a decision by May 24 ... the division believes there will be sufficient time to fulfill all of the requirements and prepare the application by the July 1 deadline," Evans said.
New York is one of three states — Florida and Oregon are the others — without a state veterans cemetery. Several states have multiple veteran cemeteries.
Whether it's Sampson or one of the other proposals, the selection committee could act on Monday to make New York the 48th state with a state veterans cemetery.
"The 737,000 veterans who call the great state of New York home deserve a dignified state-owned final resting place that honors their service to our state and our nation," Evans said.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.
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Online producer and politics reporter
I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at auburnpub.com.