In a special meeting Wednesday to address additional funding to complete the Sallisaw Veterans Center, the Oklahoma Veterans Commission (OVC) approved requesting more than $21.7 million for a construction project that has been fraught with cost increases, an eight-month work stoppage, the threat of a pending lawsuit against the project’s original architect and the firing of embattled Executive Director Joel Kintsel.
That’s why when Greg Slavonic, a retired rear admiral and former U.S. Navy undersecretary, was hired to replace Kintsel, one of his first priorities was to find out what’s going on with the Sallisaw facility in order to resolve a “distressing situation.”
The commission meeting was necessitated by an anticipated $21 million cost overrun on a $77 million project. The estimate of damages, which Arkansas TV station 40/29 reported were because “the company made significant mistakes during construction, and parts of the building were not up to code,” led to the ODVA engaging the Oklahoma City law firm Hayes, Magrini & Gatewood as a first step to the potential filing of a lawsuit against the architect.
“Sallisaw did not issue any stop orders or contribute to the stoppage,” Sallisaw City Manager Keith Skelton confirmed Thursday. “It is my understanding that ODVA found the issues. We also have no information on the cost overruns.”
At Wednesday morning’s meeting at the Vezey Veterans Complex in Oklahoma City, Slavonic, whose first day as interim executive director was March 13, requested the OVC approve an emergency declaration to prevent endangerment of public health and further damage to state property, as well as approve an increase in the construction cost of up to $21,726,939. To fund the additional services, Slavonic also requested the commission grant approval to seek supplemental funding from the Legislature in the amount of $10.85 million for the current fiscal year, which runs through June 30, and to amend the fiscal year 2024 budget to provide an additional $10.85 million to fund completion of the center.
“Today, at long last, the Oklahoma Veterans Commission received the necessary information for requesting the supplemental funding for the Sallisaw Veterans Home,” Slavonic said Wednesday. “While the reasons for this delay are not yet clear to the agency, public or the veterans we hold ourselves accountable to, the fact remains that the construction progress has been impeded for many months, and costs have continued to increase daily at an alarming rate. The commission and ODVA are committed to working together, and will be transparent in this and all future projects, endeavoring to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.” Rob Allen, Oklahoma Veterans Commission chairman, praised Slavonic, saying, “The commission is grateful to Admiral Slavonic for digging into this distressing situation and providing the information the commission needs to make this decision. This is a great first step in getting the agency back on track.”
On two different occasions — in October 2022 and February 2023 — despite an eightmonth work stoppage from February 2022 to October 2022, the projected completion date for the new Sallisaw Veterans Center remained March 2024. Following Wednesday’s special meeting, however, the completion date has been pushed back to October 2024.
Neither the OVC or the ODVA announced any progress in the investigation by the Oklahoma City law firm into the financial damages arising from the design and construction of the center. The name of the architect assumed to be the target of any lawsuit has not been released, but according to building permit documents on file with the City of Sallisaw, Orcutt-Winslow of Phoenix was the project’s original architect.
In addition, TV station 40/29, which attributed its reporting as coming from the ODVA, said the ODVA “has since hired a new company, which is fixing the construction problems.” According to Keith Miller, Sallisaw building development director, the same contractor and subcontractors who began the project following the September 2020 ground breaking are currently working at the 90-acre site on U.S. 59 south of I-40.
The ODVA said in a Feb. 9 media release that construction in Sallisaw will continue as legal action is pursued to recover damages for the State of Oklahoma. The ODVA said at the time that the project was nearly 50% complete.
While getting to the bottom of the Sallisaw quagmire was one of Slavonic’s top priorities, other important issues high on Slavonic’s agenda are investigating possible past information technology vulnerabilities, and strengthening cybersecurity and safeguarding Oklahoma veterans’ personal information.
The director and commission also plan to review the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector’s 2018 Special Audit Report, and address any unresolved issues, as well as conduct an updated employee survey at the soonest opportunity.
Slavonic has described himself as “a people guy, straightforward with no secrets.” And, true to his military background, Slavonic declared that the ODVA is “going to be a team that follows the chain of command.” He has also said he expects everyone to treat all veterans, as well as each other, with dignity and respect.