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A new report from the National Trust for Historic Preservation says the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t care for the historic buildings it owns and wastes money constructing new facilities to replace them. One of its examples is the Battle Mountain Sanitarium in Hot Springs.

An official with the group visited Hot Springs last week to call attention to efforts at preserving the sanitarium, which was built in 1907 to care for Civil War veterans.

"The National Trust and its local partners believe the Battle Mountain Sanitarium should continue to serve as a first-class VA medical facility that remains a major contributor to the vitality of Hot Springs," Jenny Buddenborg said. "A successful rehabilitation of Battle Mountain will continue to meet the health care needs of veterans."

According to the National Trust report, the VA does not always comply with the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act that require the agency to involve veterans, local, tribal, preservation and other groups before deciding the fate of historic buildings.

The VA announced its plans to close Battle Mountain Sanitarium and build a new VA campus in Rapid City in December 2011 without any warning or involvement of the public. The National Trust report says that closing historic buildings in order to build brand new facilities is being repeated nationwide by the VA.

"The VA does not appear to do a good job of looking at ways to continue to use these historic assets for their purposes," said Leslie Barras, an Orange, Texas, attorney who compiled the report. "If a building is 50 years or older, it is no longer useful and, therefore, they have to abandon that building and build something new."

The VA Black Hills Health Care System has claimed that it is too expensive to operate a medical care facility at the century-old campus in Hot Springs, and that it could better serve veterans by moving its facilities to Rapid City and building a new medical center.

Not so, says the National Trust report. It is 20 percent to 30 percent more expensive to build than to remodel because of the need to acquire land, construct new buildings and buy new equipment. "Consistently, across the board, the VA's own cost guidelines show that it is more cost effective to renovate existing buildings than it is to build new buildings," Barras said.

Hot Springs’ Save the VA group has tried to convince the VA to remain in Hot Springs by offering a plan to repurpose Battle Mountain Sanitarium as a PTSD treatment center.

The VA has not responded to the Save the VA proposal. Sen. John Thune told the Journal editorial board that he is not optimistic that the VA is willing to change its plans to move out of Hot Springs, taking 285 jobs with it.

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What the National Trust for Historic Preservation report reveals is the VA is another federal department that ignores federal laws. Imagine what would happen to a private individual or business that would abandon a National Historic Building rather than preserve it.

The VA says its priority is to serve veterans, but how much money is being diverted from treating veterans in order to build more VA Taj Mahals?

We have opposed the VA’s plan to pull out of Hot Springs for a number of valid reasons, among which is the abandonment of Battle Mountain Sanitarium, a National Historic Building that has been used by the VA to treat veterans for more than a century. The National Trust for Historic Preservation report is another argument against the Black Hills Health Care System’s flawed plans.

In our view, Hot Springs’ Battle Mountain Sanitarium is still the best location for serving area veterans, and it is a waste of taxpayer money to build new facilities so that the VA can bug out.

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