On the campus of the St. Cloud VA Medical Center, new buildings are going up and old ones are being remodeled. Nearly $90 million are being put into projects to help veterans, but a Fox 9 Investigation reveals some disabled vets, and you, the taxpayer, are getting burned. Some of the work is taking years to complete, driving costs through the roof. VIEW PHOTOS
Millions 'wasted' on construction
Ryan Preusser knows this firsthand. He's a service disabled veteran who owns a construction company hired by the VA.
"The millions and millions of dollars wasted there in a year on construction projects is ridiculous," said Preusser.
Records show many veteran-owned construction firms share Preusser's outrage. The Fox 9 Investigators obtained the information through the Freedom of Information Act. They're livid with senior VA management, blaming them for unnecessary project delays and additional expenses that have some of their companies teetering on bankruptcy.
The VA is well aware of the problems. It surveyed construction firms last May and got pages of anonymous feedback. The culture at St. Cloud is "hostile, mean spirited, ignorant." wrote one vet. Another said, "My prices go up 30 percent to 40 percent for the pain of working with the personnel there."
Remember, these comments are from veterans who were given work there because they have a service-related disability.
Delays for months
One of Preusser's projects was to build an addition to the audiology department. The project was originally supposed to take a little more than a year and it was started in 2011. After his workers broke ground and started building, they had to shut down for months. He said the VA's project managers were slow to order new sound booths. The addition was finally completed in the spring of 2014.
According to Preusser, the delay cost his firm more than $200,000, and it's all taking a heavy toll on the business and his health. He had to sell off equipment to stay afloat while waiting to hear if the VA would reimburse him for the additional expenses he incurred. That stress is compounding the PTSD he suffers from the Iraq war.
Despite his beef with VA management, Preusser continues to use the St. Cloud facility for treatment of his war-related post-traumatic stress. He has no dispute with the quality of his medical care. "It is ironic that you're seeking your treatment there, but yet in some sense they're the ones causing part of your problem," said Preusser.
General waste of money, the 'clown walk'
Fox 9 met with other disabled vet contractors who say they need to be reimbursed for millions of dollars in additional expenses. They declined to go on camera out of fear of being blacklisted, but they did give us more examples of waste and mismanagement.
Some remodeled nursing home rooms had to have walls torn down and moved, because the VA's original design failed to account for the size of new beds. Bathrooms with freshly installed tile floors were ripped out and redone when a tripping hazard was discovered. Contractors blame the VA for poor designs. The VA said workers caused some of the screw up. Cost of the do over was more than $100,000.
Every Wednesday, a large team of VA managers conduct a walk-through of all the construction projects. Contractors call it the "clown walk". It brings all work to a stand still for hours.
"They're basically out there to pick apart little things that, there's some dust in the hallway or some mud on the roadway," Preusser said.
The VA says the walk ensures a safe work site. The contractors argue you don't need all these people to do that.
Meanwhile, they told the Fox 9 Investigators those same managers are taking months to approve change orders, or respond to simple questions, creating more delays and adding to the taxpayers' tab.
VA management in St. Cloud declined to do an interview with the Fox 9 Investigators. They've also been slow to respond to another freedom of information request made 7 weeks ago. We want to know how many millions of dollars in reimbursement claims have been filed by contractors against the VA. We did get a response in writing from the VA: "We do not purposely seek to delay projects or cause the price to increase given the age of the infrastructure ...unforeseen site conditions are inevitable."