A proposal to issue up to $40 million in bonds to build a new joint headquarters for the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services cleared state House and Senate committees Monday and is headed for floor votes later this week.
“I’m very excited that our state is going to do something for veterans,” said Terri White, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “Both employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services have been working under abhorrent conditions.”
“Our building is a 100-year-old school building that has multiple problems, including mold,” White said. “The Department of Veterans Affairs is going to be condemned, potentially this year.”
House Bill 3541 cleared the state Senate Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget by a vote of 14-1 and the House Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget by a vote of 19-6.
The bill appeared to come out of nowhere in the waning days of the session, but retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, the governor’s Cabinet secretary for Veterans Affairs, said planning has been going for three years.
Those plans call for a building with about 100,000 square feet at NE 29 Street and N Lincoln Boulevard, she said. The bill calls for bonds to be paid off over a period of up to 30 years.
Aragon and White said the key to making the plan acceptable to lawmakers was coming up with a way to pay off the bonds without requiring any additional appropriation.
The plan they came up with calls for the Department of Veterans Affairs to sell its current building and about 600 acres of wooded land near Talihina to raise part of the funds. The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services would sell its current building to raise additional funds. The agencies also would reallocate funds from their current budgets, including funds the Department of Veterans Affairs has been receiving to repair and upgrade buildings.
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It’s a smart deal and it’s a good deal. It really works out extremely well because by putting two departments together we’ll be able to utilize the same meeting spaces for a lot of things and will save money from having to build two separate buildings with conference rooms, bathrooms — all that kind of thing.”
retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon,
the governor’s Cabinet secretary for Veterans Affairs