STATEMENT OF ROGER R. RAPP
ACTING UNDER SECRETARY FOR MEMORIAL AFFAIRS,
NATIONAL CEMETERY ADMINISTRATION,
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
FOR PRESENTATION BEFORE
THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS AFFAIRS
May 20, 1999
Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to be here today to share with you our perspective on important issues pertaining to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA).
I appreciate the interest you have shown in support of NCA’s mission to provide veterans with an honorable final resting-place and to maintain our national cemeteries as national shrines. These are goals that I have supported during my entire tenure with NCA, and which all employees throughout NCA have embraced. I will continue to be an advocate for this noble mission.
Since the establishment of the National Cemetery System by the National Cemeteries Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-43), and its subsequent name change to the National Cemetery Administration with the passage of the Veterans’ Benefits Enhancement Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-368), NCA has actively worked to expand the number of burial sites and provide a wider range of burial options for our Nation’s veterans and their eligible dependent family members. Significant NCA accomplishments in expanding service delivery over the years include:
Strategic Planning Within NCA
NCA strongly supports the development of strategic plans to fulfill the requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA). We also volunteered, and were selected, as a GPRA pilot organization. The NCA strategic plan was developed through an inclusive planning process. NCA continues to refine and enhance its strategic plan, and a revised strategic plan was developed for the period of 1998-2003. NCA has devolved the strategic planning process to the cemetery level with the development of cemetery business plans at all cemeteries. Plans linked by common goals and outcomes are based on identified requirements and reflect expectations of veterans, their family members, and other stakeholders.
Our strategic planning process gives full consideration to veteran demographic data. During the next decade, we face the challenge of providing for a rapidly aging veteran population. Based on the 1990 census, annual veteran deaths are expected to increase nine percent from 550,000 in 1998 to 601,000 in 2003. Annual veteran deaths are expected to peak at 620,000 in 2008. As the number of veteran deaths rises, we are projecting increases in the number of annual interments from 76,700 in 1998 to 110,000 in 2008. During this time, the total number of graves maintained is projected to increase from 2.3 million in 1998 to 3.0 million in 2008.
To meet the burial needs of veterans, NCA has established a goal to increase service delivery by providing reasonable access to a burial option in a national or state veterans cemetery within 75 miles of the veterans residence. In Fiscal Year 1998, 68.6 percent of veterans were served by a burial option in a national or state veterans cemetery. The goal is to increase the percentage of veterans served to 77.1 percent by Fiscal Year 2000, and to 80 percent by Fiscal Year 2004.
We are working to achieve this goal by completing the construction of new national cemeteries, extending the service life of existing national cemeteries, and working in partnership with the States to establish state veterans cemeteries through the State Cemetery Grants Program. In addition to completing the construction of four new national cemeteries, more than 20 expansion projects will be completed and additional land acquired at 12 existing national cemeteries over the next two years. Also, seven new state veterans cemeteries are scheduled to open over the next two years and will provide service to over 357,000 veterans not currently served.
New Cemetery Construction
The findings in two reports to Congress, one completed in 1987 and a follow-up completed in 1994, have been, and will continue to be, the basis for planning new national cemeteries. Each report identified the ten geographic areas in the United States in which the need for burial space for veterans is greatest based on concentrations of the veteran population. The listings, however, do not commit VA to build national cemeteries in each location, nor do they rank the order in which they may, if chosen, be built.
By the turn of the century, six new national cemeteries will be operational from the 1987 and 1994 Reports to Congress. San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in California opened in 1992 and Tahoma National Cemetery, near Seattle, opened in 1997. The construction of four additional national cemeteries is currently underway to serve veterans: Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Chicago, Illinois; Saratoga National Cemetery near Albany, New York; Dallas/Fort Worth National Cemetery in Texas; and the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery near Cleveland, Ohio.
After these four new cemeteries open, VA will continue to evaluate the potential establishment of additional new national cemeteries in the remaining geographic areas identified in the two reports, within the framework of the Department’s strategic planning and budgeting processes. The seven areas identified as being in greatest need from the combined listings of the 1987 and 1994 reports still remaining are, in alphabetical order: Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; Miami, Florida; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Sacramento, California; and St. Louis, Missouri. I am pleased to report that we have made progress in the St. Louis metropolitan area, which is currently served by Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. When the 1994 congressional report was issued, Jefferson Barracks was projected to deplete its inventory of gravesites in 2002. Subsequent to the 1994 report, and addressing the continued need for St. Louis, additional land has been acquired to extend the service period of the cemetery to 2010, and $7.5 million was included in the Fiscal Year 1999 appropriations bill to develop this additional land. In addition, we are following the intent of Congress by working to award a contract to develop a master plan and design documents for a potential cemetery at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Partnership with the States
NCA prides itself on developing a continued partnership with the states to provide burial services for our Nation’s veterans. The State Cemetery Grants Program is a true complement to, not a replacement for, our federal system of national cemeteries. Through this grants program, service can be provided to veterans residing in less densely populated areas not currently served by a national cemetery. Since 1980, the Department has awarded 128 grants totaling more than $58 million to the states. Twenty-one states now operate 38 cemeteries. These facilities provided the honor of burial in a state veterans cemetery to more than 12,000 veterans and their eligible family members in Fiscal Year 1998.
With the passage of Public Law 105-368 last year, we have been able to strengthen our partnership and increase burial service to veterans. This legislation revised the funding formula for the State Cemetery Grants Program by authorizing the Federal Government to pay up to 100 percent of the costs of construction associated with establishment, expansion or improvement of a state veterans cemetery. In addition, VA can now provide grant funding for the initial equipment costs in establishing new state veterans cemeteries. This legislative change has improved the ability of states to obtain Federal funds for establishing complete and fully equipped cemeteries for veterans. As before, the states remain totally responsible for operations and maintenance, including additional equipment needs.
The new law has resulted in an increased interest by the states, which will eventually increase service delivery in areas that are not currently served. In addition to the 38 cemeteries now operated by 21 states, we awarded grants for development of three new cemeteries in two additional states in Fiscal Year 1998. We have approved pre-applications for grants to establish 10 new cemeteries in five more states. Once all those cemeteries are operational, there will be 51 state veterans cemeteries in 28 states.
Several states are considering legislation to establish one or more cemeteries. Kansas has approved legislation to establish a system of up to four state cemeteries. Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and Louisiana also are in the process of obtaining appropriate state-level approvals for the development of new state veterans cemeteries.
Maintaining National Cemeteries
A major challenge facing NCA is to ensure that all national cemeteries are maintained in a manner befitting their status as national shrines. These shrines must provide each veteran with a final resting-place that reflects the dignity, honor, and respect that they have earned. Regular, ongoing maintenance is required in burial sections as well as in the infrastructure of all 115 national cemeteries. In 1998, these cemeteries consisted of 2.3 million gravesites, over 6,000 developed acres (acreage no longer in its natural state), more than 400 buildings, and other infrastructure such as roads, walks, fences, boundary walls, irrigation and electrical systems, and monuments.
Maintaining the grounds, graves, and grave-markers of national cemeteries as national shrines requires our continuous attention. Cemetery maintenance issues are influenced by many different factors. As time goes by, cemeteries experience a variety of environmental changes that may require extensive maintenance. Extremes in weather, such as excessive rain or drought, can result in or exacerbate sunken graves, sunken markers, soiled markers, and inferior turf cover. For example, the 230-pound upright headstones and the 130-pound flat markers tend to settle over time and must be raised and realigned periodically. The frequency of this need varies depending on soil conditions and climate.
There are 59 historic VA national cemeteries that were developed during the Civil War era. Most of these historic sites are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Typically, these 130 year-old facilities have quality, yet aging and sometimes deteriorating, structures. These structures include masonry lodge buildings, stone boundary walls, stone monuments and statues, and other truly historic features such as rostrums. These are costly elements to maintain, but these are also the very features that make our historic cemeteries national shrines.
The increasing number of interments performed at national cemeteries also presents maintenance issues. As a result of the rapidly increasing mortality of World War II and Korean War veterans, and a higher utilization of burial services among Vietnam era veterans, annual interments have increased from 58,400 in 1989 to 76,700 in 1998, and will continue to increase over the next decade. It has been necessary to redirect some NCA maintenance resources to interment operations in order to meet the annual interment workload increases. This increasing burial workload has a compounding effect on NCA maintenance requirements. Improvement projects for some longstanding maintenance issues at our older cemeteries have been deferred as available maintenance resources have been focused on preventing additional significant maintenance problems from developing.
Cemetery Appearance Standards
A key objective of the NCA performance plan is to ensure that the appearance of national cemeteries is rated excellent by veterans, their family members, and the general public. NCA is performing surveys of the families of individuals who are interred in national cemeteries, and of other visitors, to measure how the public perceives the appearance of the cemeteries. The information obtained is an excellent yardstick by which to assess maintenance conditions at individual facilities as well as the overall system. Typically, most organizations set goals and report on levels of satisfaction by combining the "excellent" and "good" scores received from survey respondents. However, in NCA, we have raised the bar consistent with the high standards and expectations of veterans and the general public. Excellence can be the only standard for the appearance of a national shrine, and that is the standard by which we will measure the effectiveness of our stewardship.
During Fiscal Year 1998, 77 percent of survey respondents rated the appearance of national cemeteries as excellent. NCA’s strategic goal is to have 100 percent of survey respondents rate the appearance of its national cemeteries as excellent by 2003. While we are pleased that more than three-quarters of survey respondents believe the appearance of our national cemeteries is excellent, we need to do better to close the gap between our goal and our actual performance. To meet this strategic goal will be a challenge, especially in active cemeteries where burials are still being performed, and the data collected from surveys will be an important tool to ensure that NCA maintenance resources address those issues most important to those we serve.
Efficiencies Through Contracting
The primary activities at our national cemeteries related to performing interments are usually accomplished by VA employees. However, we consider contracting opportunities when determining how best to increase our efficiencies in meeting the maintenance needs of our cemeteries. Currently, all maintenance activities at 30 national cemeteries are conducted exclusively by contractors. In addition, 26 soldiers lots, plots, and monument sites under the jurisdiction of NCA are maintained through a contractual arrangement. Where feasible, individual national cemeteries use contractor services for a variety of activities. Several areas that are routinely contracted include: pest management, headstone and marker cleaning, tree trimming, general housekeeping, all second inscriptions and all minor construction projects. We have had varied success with contracting out activities; we are pleased with the results in many locations, but where we have not been satisfied with the results we have brought the activities back in-house to be performed by VA employees.
A major contracting success has been the establishment of a partnership with the Veterans Health Administration’s Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) program. This One VA initiative supports therapeutic work opportunities for veterans and provides our national cemeteries with a cost-effective labor source that is used to assist in cemetery maintenance activities. Since the beginning of this initiative in 1993 at one cemetery, local partnerships have been established at more than 20 locations and the total number of CWT participants working in national cemeteries has increased from four to more than 100. This is one of our greatest success stories—NCA and VHA working together to serve veterans.
We are planning to use contractors to perform maintenance activities at the four new cemeteries currently under construction. In addition, all grounds maintenance activities are being performed by contractors at the new Tahoma National Cemetery. A major advantage to this approach at new cemeteries is that there would be no adverse impact on an existing cemetery workforce, which is predominantly comprised of veterans. We are very proud of the fact that veterans represent 69 percent of our workforce, which is, we believe, the highest percentage of any government agency. As of March 31, 1999, NCA employs 906 veterans out of a total of 1,331 employees.
We are also expanding our use of performance based contracts. Rather than establishing maintenance contracts which set specific requirements on how to do the job, performance based contracting is focused on the results to be achieved by the contractor. This new approach to contracting is consistent with getting the results we want, that is, a national cemetery that is maintained as a national shrine.
Reducing Future Maintenance Requirements
We are continuously reengineering work processes and looking for new operational methods that can reduce ground maintenance requirements. Thanks to the legislation Congress passed in 1988 (Public Law 100-322), the use of graveliners was authorized in open national cemeteries, which has greatly reduced the amount of time and resources that must be spent on maintaining graves. When graveliners are not used, the earth around caskets compacts, which results in sinkage of the gravesite and the need to fill the grave, reestablish turf, and possibly raise and realign the headstone. We now use graveliners to dramatically reduce cemetery maintenance requirements. In addition, we are expanding the use of pre-placed crypts to reduce our future maintenance workload, which also has the added benefit of streamlining the actual interment process.
We are also working to reduce future maintenance problems caused by the lack of adequate irrigation systems. For example, the feasibility of an irrigation project is being evaluated to provide a solution to turf problems experienced at Quantico National Cemetery. Also, all new national cemeteries currently under construction will have modern irrigation systems in place. Irrigation, drainage and utility requirements are major investments in our larger national cemeteries. Developing a long-term, cost effective water source will provide the infrastructure within national cemeteries necessary to reduce maintenance costs and improve cemetery appearance. We are committed to consider providing state of the art irrigation systems at all of our larger national cemeteries, taking into consideration the environmental and water source issues that need to be addressed when evaluating a project.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my opening statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or the members of the Subcommittee may have on these important issues.