Just over a year ago as reports of multiple deaths at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke started to circulate, the calls started to pour into the office of former Rep. Aaron Vega, where Rep. Patricia Duffy worked as a legislative staffer.
"In all my years working in constituent service, I've never felt so helpless and heartbroken as I did when I spoke to those family members who did not know the fate of their loved ones," the first-term Holyoke Democrat said during a floor speech on Thursday. "We can't let that happen again."
In an effort to address what legislators and advocates have called longstanding inequities at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, the House voted 160-0 Thursday afternoon to approve legislation authorizing $400 million in long-term borrowing to pay for a new facility.
Lawmakers have joined the Baker administration in trying to speed the bill's passage in order to apply for as much as $260 million from the federal government, which would leave state taxpayers to cover the remaining $140 million in project costs.
An initial application was due to the Veterans Affairs State Home Construction Grant Program on Thursday, and a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Humans Services confirmed the state had sent it in this week. The application must be vetted by Veterans Affairs before it can be shared publicly, the spokesperson said.
An application with the full design plans of the facility is due to the federal government on Aug. 1, and lawmakers who spoke on Thursday stressed the importance of quickly passing the legislation so the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance can begin the design and development process.
"While initial design is complete, under M.G.L. Chapter 7C, Sections 59 and 60, [DCAMM] cannot move forward with further design and development until this legislation is enacted," Rep. Danielle Gregoire said during the session. "Given that a typical project of this nature could take between nine and nine and a half months to design, any delay moving forward could prove detrimental to DCAMM's ability to complete design by the Aug. 1 deadline."
Gregoire serves as co-chair of Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets, one of the committees that held a hearing on the legislation earlier this month. The State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee held a hearing on Gov. Charlie Baker's version of the bill in mid-March.
During Thursday's session, Gregoire laid out a timeline for the project: the "enabling work" for the project is expected to be done in spring 2022; construction will occur between summer 2022 and summer 2026; the move to the new building will be scheduled for fall of 2026; demolition of the existing facility will follow the move and end in 2028; and final site work and landscaping will take place between spring and summer of 2028.
The legislation also includes project labor agreement language, which outlines how union labor should be used on the project. The PLA provision was added by the Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight, which is co-chaired by Rep. Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat.
Non-union contractors have pushed legislators to delete the language from the bill, arguing that the requirement is costly and discriminatory toward minority- and women-owned contractors. Some lawmakers, like Gregoire, have defended the use of a PLA, saying it will, in fact, increase the diversity of contractors on the project.
"The goal of this language is to ensure that this project is worked on by Massachusetts companies, as well as minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses where at all possible," Gregoire said. "We've had much success in utilizing PLAs on other large-scale construction projects in our state, both public and private, and we believe that this language will help us achieve those goals."
The push to construct a new soldiers' home in Holyoke follows the death of 77 veteran residents last year as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. Since then, lawmakers have investigated the cause of the outbreak and committed to reviewing leadership structures, staffing levels, training, and the facility itself.
"Words cannot and do not adequately define or measure such an unimaginable loss of so many lives," said Second Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner. "Nor can words describe the grief and loss experienced by the families of those who died, as well as those who provided 24 hour care for the home's resident veterans."
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Wagner said, many "fault lines" were exposed.
"The matter before us today is in relation to another of those fault lines, an outdated facility that was ill equipped to defend against a fast moving and deadly virus," the Chicopee Democrat said. "It is this fault line that we move to address by our action today."