Another step forward for local veterans cemetery effort
Tue, 12/13/2022 - 5:26pm caleb
Michigan House of Representatives passes Senate Bill 971 on Tuesday, December 6
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
An effort to bring a state veterans cemetery to Crawford County took another step forward on Tuesday, December 6, as the Michigan House of Representatives voted in favor of the endeavor.
“The Michigan House of Representatives today approved a plan to open a new cemetery for veterans in northern Michigan,” according to a December 6 press release from the office of State Representative Ken Borton (105th District).
Proponents of having a state veterans cemetery in Crawford County via Senate Bill 971 say it would provide a much-needed facility for people who have served in the military and their families.
“More and more veterans are passing away as our population ages; they should have access to a veterans cemetery near their families that will allow them to be formally honored for their service. Establishing a veterans cemetery that is centrally located in northern Michigan will make this possible for more men and women who have answered the call of duty in our nation’s military,” said State Senator Curt VanderWall (35th District), a sponsor of the bill.
“The proposed state veterans cemetery in Crawford County would fill a critical need. Currently, two federal veterans cemeteries in Michigan are open for new interments, both located in the southern part of the state – one near Battle Creek and the other in Holly,” according to the office of Representative Borton.
In March of 2022, VanderWall and 28 other state senators “introduced legislation to create a veterans cemetery fund and authorize a land purchase to formally establish a state military cemetery in Crawford County, which will support the project’s inclusion in the state’s 2022-23 fiscal year budget,” according to VanderWall. “Senate Bill 971 would create a veterans cemetery fund within the Department of Treasury and authorize a land purchase to formally establish a state military cemetery in Crawford County. The project is anticipated to cost between $10 (million) and $15 million to plan and construct the cemetery and will be funded with federal dollars.”
On June 30 of 2022 the state senate passed Senate Bill 971 with a 37-0 vote.
According to Senate Bill 971, “the (Department of Military and Veterans Affairs) may acquire and purchase land in a county with a population of not less than 12,500 and not greater than 13,500 that is suitable for a veterans cemetery or designate land owned by this state under the jurisdiction of the department in a county with a population of not less than 12,500 and not greater than 13,500 as a veterans cemetery.”
(Crawford [population 13,204] and Presque Isle [population 13,093] are the only two counties in Michigan in the 12,500 to 13,500 range, according to the Michigan Demographics website “Michigan Counties by Population.”)
“The veterans cemetery fund is created in the state treasury. The treasurer shall deposit money and other assets from any source in the fund. The state treasurer shall direct the investment of money in the fund and credit interest and earnings from the investments to the fund. The (Department of Military and Veterans Affairs) is the administrator of the fund for audits of the fund. Money in the fund at the close of the fiscal year does not lapse to the general fund. The department shall expend money from the fund, on appropriation, for one or more of only the following purposes: (a) For architectural design or engineering plans, or both, and any necessary environmental impact studies prescribed by law. (b) Necessary expenses to qualify for federal grants under 38 USC 2408. (c) To prepare land that is acquired or purchased for a veterans cemetery or designated as a veterans cemetery for operational use. (d) For ongoing expenses related to the operation of a veterans cemetery,” According to Senate Bill 971. “The legislature shall appropriate sufficient money to accomplish the purpose of this act.”
“After answering the call of duty and dedicating their lives to our country, northern Michigan veterans deserve to have a fitting final resting place available for them,” Borton said. “Establishing a dedicated veterans cemetery in our region will help us honor the men and women from ‘up north’ who served in our armed forces.”
Carey Jansen, District #5 Crawford County Commissioner, and Wayne Koppa, former Camp Grayling commander, two of the people spearheading the local effort to bring the veterans cemetery to the county, were excited to find out that the Michigan House of Representatives had approved the bill. They heard the news during a chance encounter in town at a local brewery.
“We were chatting and I decided to check my email on my phone. There was an email from UpNorthLive asking for an interview, saying she saw SB971 just passed via a press release from Representative Borton,” Commissioner Jansen said. “We couldn’t believe it. We immediately went to the State of Michigan legislative website and there it was. Furthermore, it passed without additional language that could have put the cemetery in another county.”
“Calls to a couple legislators were made earlier in the day and no one had any encouraging predictions,” Koppa said. “Something had to happen Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday in the House of Representatives. I very seldom see Carey around town unless we have a meeting. What are the chances we would be in the same place when we found out? A quiet night quickly turned to something like winning the Mega Lotto Jackpot.”
“Crawford County is a proud military town and we are so honored and excited to be part of the effort bringing it to our hometown. Wayne Koppa, Bill Romzick, and myself are just beyond thrilled. Wayne has been working on this for several years and myself and Bill for the past two-plus years,” Jansen said.
“We quickly made several phone calls to Bill, before he picked up, to share the news. Bill is not widely known locally but he brought expert knowledge to the process from his experience designing Veterans Administration cemeteries, building and managing cemeteries,” Koppa said.
“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster; you don’t ever know if your effort is going to pay off,” Jansen said. “I’ve learned so much about the legislative process; it’s mind boggling. We can’t thank Senator Curt VanderWall and his staff enough for his efforts in introducing the bill and the care and concern he displays for veterans and their families. They were wonderful to work with – truly a team effort.”
“Every day in Northern Michigan, 11 residents pass away that would be eligible for burial in a veterans cemetery, and now we can honor their service to our country, with a beautiful, patriotic place to rest. Veterans, their spouses, and dependent children are all eligible for this free earned benefit, saving grieving families $2,500 to $3,500 in burial costs,” Jansen said. “We’re looking forward to the next steps. Third time’s a charm.”
(Two prior efforts to bring a veterans cemetery to Crawford County were unsuccessful.)
“If the State of Michigan makes application by July 1 then they will find out in September if they are approved for funding. It takes four years typically from approval to the point of operation. We have some hoops to jump through to get this to the governor’s desk and then to the VA for consideration. I think it is fair to say that the toughest stuff is behind us. Carey’s tireless energy kept this effort going when the process had more twists and turns than the AuSable River,” Koppa said.
Koppa said former Crawford County Avalanche Staff Writer Dan Sanderson assisted with the effort by providing information. Sanderson passed away in July of this year.
“When we started down this process it was an employee of the Avalanche that provided the documents on cemetery legislation and a State of Michigan Fiscal Analysis on building a veterans cemetery in Crawford County in 2001. More than a little of that language from 2001 made it into the recent work. Dan Sanderson provided it. I was unaware of all that activity in 2002 and those documents went to many people to include Senator VanderWall and was essential to getting where we are today – on the way to the governor’s desk,” Koppa said. “It would be appropriate to mention the involvement of Sanderson. We may not be where we are today without that initial trove of information.”