Veterans’ home repairs could cost $265 million, report says

Capitol Connection

QUINCY, Ill. (WCIA) — The Rauner administration delivered a preliminary cost estimate to members of a special task force Friday revealing the prolonged effort to repair the aging Quincy Veterans’ Home could reach a price tag of $265 million.

A 2015 outbreak of Legionnaires’ resulted in 12 deaths at the facility. Another resident died in 2017 after contracting Legionnaires’ disease, according to the coroner. Residents have fallen ill with Legionnaires’ symptoms at various times throughout each of the last four years despite the state’s efforts to remedy the ongoing crisis. 

Erica Jeffries, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, had previously given estimates ranging from $25 million to $500 million, according to reports from WBEZ and the Associated Press. 

The updated analysis includes a preferred route alongside two alternative plans, complete with pros and cons for each step. Lawmakers began reviewing details this weekend ahead of this year’s upcoming budget negotiations. A final report is scheduled to be released to the public next month. 

The new report, officially titled the Illinois Veterans’ Homes Capital Needs Assessment, strongly recommends construction on a new residential home on the Quincy campus, complete with a new water distribution plumbing loop ($220M – $250M), a newly installed water plumbing loop to completely replace outdated pipes ($13.4M), development of an alternative water source ($4.6M – $5.5M), and the purchase and renovation of an off-site facility ($5M – $6M). 

The estimated time frame to complete construction on a new facility is four to five years. 

Lawmakers would have to approve any extra spending in the upcoming budget negotiations. In his February budget address, Governor Rauner requested $50 million to address “Legionella control” recommendations in the next fiscal year. 

Senator Tom Cullerton (D-Villa Park) chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, but was left off of the Quincy task force. A Rauner administration official sent him a copy of the report Friday, prompting Cullerton to ask, “If this was going to cost five times as much, then why weren’t they working on this earlier? Why did it take so long?”

The governor’s political foes have grilled his agency heads during legislative hearings, calling on some of them to resign. Republican lawmakers have largely defended the incumbent governor, pointing to written reports from baffled health officials at the CDC who said the strain of bacteria was so persistent, complete eradication “may not be possible.”

The first reported case of Legionnaires’ was detected at the home seven months into Governor Rauner’s first year in office. The governor has repeatedly insisted his team did everything they could and followed the instructions of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at every turn. However, the governor’s staff did review and pass up prepared plans to repair the plumbing — even after the CDC identified that specific issue as a problem.

Last month, Rauner appointed a trusted advisor and Marine Corps veteran Mike Hoffman to take over the helm as a new project manager at the Quincy home. Jeffries said she welcomes the new addition, and bristled at rumors that he had been assigned to take over her responsibilities at the facility.

“He’s a fantastic guy and it’s great to have a partner in the Governor’s office that can help us continuously improve upon the Quincy campus,” Jeffries said in Springfield last Thursday. She insisted she and Hoffman both report directly to the Governor and that she had not been pushed aside or demoted in the transition. 

Under Jeffries’ guidance, the agency spent $6.4 million to install a water treatment facility. Part of the emergency response included increased testing and monitoring. According to data from Phigenics, LLC, which were published in the report, water tests came back positive for Legionella bacteria 64 percent of the time in 2015. That figure dropped down to 12 percent in 2016, and just two percent last year. 

Senator Cullerton was not impressed with those results. 

“If they want to pat themselves on the back for not killing as many veterans this time as they did last time, they can do that,” he said in a phone interview with WCIA on Friday evening. 

Democratic gubernatorial nominee J.B. Pritzker has repeatedly hammered Rauner for “fatal mismanagement” at the home. 

The Office of the Auditor General recently opened a new probe into the Rauner administration’s response to the health crisis. The audit is likely to include examination of the plumbing, including close up photos inside the aging pipes which are reportedly tainted with toxic biofilm. The final audit report is not expected to be published until after the November election.  

More than 350 veterans or their spouses still live at the facility. Most of them live in buildings that were constructed at least half a century ago. Two independent living structures on campus are 109 years old.

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