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Witness Testimony of Ronald E. Walters, Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, National Cemetery Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney and members of the Subcommittee, I am pleased to be here today to provide an overview of the FY 2012 budget for the National Cemetery Administration (NCA).  Within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), NCA is responsible for administering burial and memorial programs to meet the needs of Veterans,  their families and survivors. Our responsibilities include: management of 131 national cemeteries and 33 soldiers’ lots and monuments; furnishing headstones, markers and medallions for the graves of Veterans around the world; administering the Presidential Memorial Certificate program; and, overseeing the Federal grants program for construction of state and tribal Veterans cemeteries. 

VA’s burial and memorial programs are funded from both discretionary and mandatory accounts.  Mandatory funding is provided from the Compensation and Pension account, managed by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).  These funds are used to purchase headstones, markers and burial crypts.  I will focus my comments today on the discretionary funding, administered by NCA.  The President’s 2012 budget request includes a total of $376.7 million for NCA’s discretionary programs.  Of this amount, $250.9 million is included for operations and maintenance of our national cemeteries; $38.2 million is requested for our Major Construction program; $41.6 million for Minor Construction; and $46 million for the Veterans Cemetery Grant program.

Our operations and maintenance request of $250.9 million sustains significant investments in national cemeteries provided by the President and Congress in the past several years.  The base budget for operations includes nearly $33 million for projects to raise, realign and clean headstones and markers and repair sunken graves, as part of our ongoing effort to maintain national cemeteries as national shrines worthy of Veterans’ service and sacrifice.  In addition, our operations and maintenance request includes $3 million for renewable energy projects such as the installation of windmills and solar panels at several facilities, along with $2 million for non-recurring maintenance projects.

The budget request will also permit NCA to hire an additional 10 FTE to address expected increases in burials and to provide contract funding for additional maintenance requirements. 

VA’s 2012 Major Construction request includes $38.2 million for NCA.  This funding will allow us to address our top construction priority: keeping existing national cemeteries open.  The 2012 major program includes $23.7 million for a gravesite expansion project at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.  The request also includes $14.5 million in line item funding: $10 million for planned land acquisition that will be used to purchase property when the opportunity arises, and $4.5 million for advance planning of future major construction projects. 

Using the total available funding in these line items, together with available balances from prior-year major construction funding, NCA expects  to acquire land and begin preliminary planning efforts for five new national cemeteries.  The Secretary of Veterans Affairs’ recent approval of new burial policies, which changed the threshold veteran population required to construct a new national cemetery to 80,000 within 75 miles of a proposed site, will result in the construction of new national cemeteries in Central East Florida; Omaha, Nebraska; Western New York; Tallahassee, Florida; and Southern Colorado.  NCA is actively searching for land at these locations and expects to request related construction funding in future budgets.

Included in VA’s 2012 Minor Construction request is $41.6 million for NCA.  NCA will allocate these funds for gravesite expansion projects, infrastructure repairs and the construction of a columbarium-only satellite cemetery in the Chicago area. The Chicago satellite is part of an urban initiative associated with the new burial policies. 

Finally, the 2012 request provides $46 million for the Veterans Cemetery Grants program.  These funds will allow NCA to address all of the anticipated, highest-priority projects, including those submitted by tribal governments.  The grants program is especially important in providing burial access to Veterans living in rural areas.  As part of this program, VA will continue to offer operating grants to assist states in achieving and maintaining standards of appearance commensurate with national cemetery shrine status.  The states will also benefit greatly from Congress’ increase in the plot allowance to $700 beginning in FY 2012, and the subsequent indexing of adjustments to the allowance based on the Consumer Price Index.  These funds, which are administered by VBA, are paid to the states for the burial of Veterans and help offset operating expenses.      

Mr. Chairman, the 2012 request builds upon NCA’s previous success and will allow us to continue to meet the needs of Veterans and their families.  In 2012, NCA will provide nearly 90 percent of the Veteran population—about 20 million Veterans—with a burial option in a national or state veterans cemetery within 75 miles of their homes.  We expect to inter more than 115,000 Veterans and dependents next year–an increase of about 1,000 burials over 2011.  We will also maintain over 8,700 developed acres, or 3 percent over the 2011 estimate, while giving perpetual care to 3.2 million, or 2.6 percent more gravesites.

NCA expects to maintain unsurpassed levels of customer satisfaction in 2012.  NCA achieved the top rating in the nation four consecutive times on the prestigious American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) established by the University of Michigan.  The Index is the only national, cross-industry measure of satisfaction in the United States.  On the most recent 2010 survey and over the past decade, NCA’s scores bested over 100 federal agencies and the nation’s top corporations including Ford, FedEx and Coca Cola, to name a few.  Our own internal surveys confirm this exceptional level of performance.  For 2010, 98 percent of our survey respondents rated the appearance of national cemeteries as excellent; 95 percent rated the quality of service as excellent.  Our 2012 targets for cemetery appearance and quality of service are 99 and 98 percent, respectively.

The 2012 budget will enable NCA to process 90 percent of headstone and marker applications for Veterans buried in locations other than VA national cemeteries (e.g., private cemeteries, state and tribal Veterans cemeteries) within 20 days of receiving the request.  Ninety five percent of gravesites in national cemeteries will be marked within 60 days of an interment.    

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks.  I appreciate the opportunity to come before you today to provide an overview of the FY2012 budget request for the National Cemetery Administration. We are grateful for your support and the support of this Subcommittee.  I’d be happy to answer any questions.  Thank you.