Author: Africah Harrigan

GOVERNOR’S FINANCIAL TEAM SHARES FY 2020 BUDGET

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St. Thomas- Members of the Committee on Finance, chaired by Sen. Kurt Vialet, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Tuesday, to receive testimony on the proposed FY 2020 Executive Budget for the Governor’s Financial Team.

The Office of Management and Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal stated that the governor’s recommended budget for FY 2020 totals $1,323,278,675. This comprises of $216,313,915 for Federal Funds, $98,841,083 for other Appropriated Funds, and $848,438,835 for the General Fund.

The overall budget of $1.32 billion is representative of the expenditures of the Department excluding cash transfers, contingencies, and unappropriated balances; according to O’Neal.

“The FY 2020 Executive Budget continues to reflect a balanced approach to spending, cautious optimism, and continued fiscal responsibility. The budget also maintains the long-term fiscal position by fully funding General Fund obligations and providing for a budget rainy day stabilization reserve,” said O’Neal who defended the proposed budget. She also mentioned that the expenditure projection for the General Fund increased by $30.5 million from the initial $817.9 million to $848.4 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

Furthermore, O’Neal mentioned that the Division of Personnel, the Bureau of Internal Revenue and OMB are some of the departments impacted by the General Fund increase. Firstly, the FY 2020 budget for the Division of Personnel totals $10,838,027. The breakdown is as follows: $10,510,219 for Health Insurance Contractual Costs, $237,207 for personnel services, and $90,601 for fringe benefits. Secondly, the FY 2020 recommendation for the Bureau of Internal Revenue totals $706,778. The budget comprises of $68,368 for personnel services, $45,410 for fringe benefits and $593,000 for other services and charges. Thirdly, the FY 2020 budget for OMB totals $3,236,500. The budget is inclusive of $150,000 for capital outlay, $3,000,000 for prior year obligations, $40,000 for supplies, $15,000 for utilities, and $31,500 for other services and charges.

Some of the additional departments with proposed expenditure increases with recommendations for FY 2020 includes $1,723,876 for the Department of Justice, $366,419 for VITEMA, $700,000 for the Virgin Islands Fire Department, $100,000 for the Office of the Adjutant General, $32,583 for the Bureau Motor Vehicles, and $1,375 for the Department of Finance; according to O’Neal.

Regarding the Public Finance Authority (PFA), O’Neal noted that there is an increase of $1.5 million from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund with a total of $5,000,000 for operating expenses. She also expounded on the required increase of funds. “PFA needs the additional funding to effectively support the Administrations pro-economic development agenda and assisting in developing programs such as the Qualified Opportunity Zones Programs, GERS pension funding, and the restructuring of the Water and Power Authority.” In addition to rebuilding the Territory post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria, key priorities for the Governor’s Financial Team includes stabilizing the Government of the Virgin Islands by providing required funds to Departments and agencies to fulfill mandates and to have a zero balance for all outstanding bills, fines, and judgments. Paying off the outstanding debt to vendors and businesses has precedence as well; according to O’Neal.                                                           

BILLS HONORING DEANNA ROGERS AND THE RISING STARS STEEL ORCHESTRA FOR THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE VIRGIN ISLANDS MOVES FORWARD

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging, chaired by Sen. Myron Jackson held meeting at the Capitol Building and voted favorably for Bill No. 33-0128 and Bill No. 33-0110 as it relates to honoring the contributions of outstanding Virgin Islanders. Lawmakers also received an update on the Vendors Plaza transfer and proposed improvements. All bills approved will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Senators voted and approved two measures. Firstly, Bill No. 33-0128- A Resolution honoring and commending Deanna Elyse Rogers for her outstanding civic contributions and public service and for being the first Post Auditor of the Legislature of the Virgin Islands. The bill was sponsored by Senator Stedmann Hodge, Jr.  Secondly, Bill No. 33-0110- A Resolution honoring and commending the Rising Stars Steel Orchestra for their musical contributions and dedication the youth of our community and for being cultural ambassadors abroad. The bill sponsors are senators Janelle K. Sarauw and Steven D. Payne, Sr.

Former senators Clarence Payne and Alicia “Chucky” Hansen shared remarks about Rogers. “The recognition of my mother at this time in history could not have been timelier,” said Payne, son of the honoree. “It is a time where women all around the world are forcefully taking their rightful places in history. Lastly, the Virgin Islands has always been cognizant of the role that women play in the administrative functioning and leadership of this society.” Smart, humble, powerful, and compassionate are some of the words Hansen used to describe Rogers. “Deanna Rogers is a model for other women to follow and show that once granted the opportunity, they can handle a job ‘classified’ for men. Women can perform at a higher level,” Hansen added.

Regarding Bill No. 33-0110 which honors the Rising Stars Steel Orchestra, Judicial Branch of the Virgin Islands Court Services Administrator Glendia Caines, MBA indicated that the program positively impacts the lives of many young people in the Territory. “This program has played an instrumental role in the lives of more than 2500 Virgin Islands youths Territory-wide; within the program itself as well as various public, private and parochial schools where the Instructors were allowed to extend and cultivate the cultural aspect of playing the steel pan.”

Separately, policymakers were updated on the status of Vendors Plaza.

Currently, vendors pay an annual fee of $200 to secure a spot to sell at the Plaza. Previously, the Department of Tourism partnered with the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs (DLCA) to purchase uniform tents for the use of vendors; according to DLCA Commissioner Designee Richard Evangelista, Esq. Furthermore, Evangelista noted that although models for the kiosks in Vendors’ Plaza were developed with an estimated cost of $3 million; securing funds is an extraordinary task. “Procuring the funds for the building of kiosks will always be a difficult task. Moreover, DLCA must take into consideration the Waterfront Expansion Project that contains a relocation of a Vendors’ Plaza in the downtown area,” he said.  Despite financial challenges, the Department of Tourism Director of Communications Alani Henneman Todman said, “Vendors Plaza continues to be a positive focal point of our Tourism Product. There are ongoing efforts to ensure the plaza is kept clean and welcoming for locals and visitors alike.”                                              ###

DEPARTMENT HEADS SHARE FY 2020 EXECUTIVE BUDGET

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St. Thomas- Members of the Committee on Finance, chaired by Sen. Kurt Vialet, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Friday, to receive testimony on the proposed FY 2020 Executive Budget for the Office of the Inspector General, the V.I. Department of Property and Procurement, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR), the Virgin Islands Council of the Arts (VICA), the V.I. State Historic Preservation Commission (SHPO), and the Office of the Adjutant General. Lawmakers also voted and approved one bill and two Request for Transfers. All items approved will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Steven van Beverhoudt, the Virgin Islands Inspector General for the Office of the Inspector General stated that the FY 2020 budget totals $3,003,576. The breakdown is as follows: $50,000 for utilities, $1,793,599 for personnel services, $50,000 for capital outlays, $637,686 for fringe benefits, $50,000 for supplies, and $422,921 for other services and charges. According to the Post Audit Report, as of March 31, 2019, actual expenses are $951,316. The budgetary reserve is $750,907, as of June 7, 2019.

The Virgin Islands Property and Procurement Commissioner Anthony Thomas mentioned that the governor’s recommended FY 2020 budget is $17,134,156. Defending the proposed budget, Thomas stated that the Department’s request covers 69 salaries for employees and 14 vacancies. The funds are also needed to meet the demands of the Department. “For FY 2020, our strategy is to concentrate on core activities aimed at fulfilling mandates, improving efficiency and increasing revenue streams,” said Thomas. Additionally, the Department is requesting $185,310 for the Indirect Cost Fund, $4,212,250 for the Business and Commercial Properties Professional Fund, and $1,131,500 for the local Non-Appropriated Fund.

The Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol indicated that the FY 2020 budget request is $33,421,303. The budget consists of $8,948,589 for the General Fund, $3,899,947 for Non-Appropriated Local Funds, and $20,572,767 for Federal assistance grantor agencies. In comparison to the FY 2019 appropriations totaling $8,748,107; there is a two percent increase in the General Fund for FY 2020. Moreover, the Virgin Islands Council of the Arts Executive Director Tashida Kelch mentioned that the FY 2020 budget totals $294,260 for the General Fund and $375,000 for the Federal Fund. Oriol added that the VICA Board reviewed 133 grants with requests for funding totaling $683,220. Thus far, $387,380 was awarded to 133 grantees Territory-wide. The Virgin Islands State Historic Preservation Office Chairman Felipe Ayala, Jr. stated that a total of $152,248 is for the General Fund and $417,300 is for the Federal Fund. “We anticipate being able to provide $200,000 towards the Contentment Village Restoration Project on St. Croix,” said Ayala regarding one of the biggest FY 2020 initiatives for SHPO.

The Office of Adjutant General Designee Colonel Knox Limbacker stated that governor’s recommended budget for FY 2020 totals $2,258,494 from the General Fund. The overall FY 2020 projected operating budget is $8,322,174. The budget comprises of $5,846,800 for Federal Funds, $216,880 for miscellaneous, and $2,258,494 for the VI Government Recommendation.

Separately, lawmakers voted and approved the following:

  • NO. 001-19 DEPARTMENT OF PLANNING & NATURAL RESOURCES “To utilize projected savings in Capital Outlay to cover projected deficits in Personnel Services, Fringe Benefits and Other Services & Charge.” This appropriation transfer will allow payment of outstanding compensation for PERB-GSA-01-09 Sec. 530 “Remand” Cooke vs Government of the Virgin Islands.
  • NO. 002-19 BUREAU OF INTERNAL REVENUE “To request the transfer of vacancy savings from both personnel and fringe benefits to operating expenses in order to facilitate the following housekeeping initiatives: the purchase of equipment (2 – 20 ton A/C units, 9 vehicles, 30 desktops, 2 industrial shredders, and 145 ergonomic chairs), repair and maintenance services for the removal of carpet and the installation of tiles (22 office spaces, 1 conference room and adjoining corridors), air quality cleaning and subsequent testing, painting of the Bureau’s lobby areas and the purchase of the requisite supplies to facilitate these projects as well as to create a reserve with the necessities needed for day to day operations.”
  • NO. 003-19 DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION– “To request the transfer of vacancy savings from both personnel and fringe benefits to operating expenses in order to meet the needs of schools by purchasing kitchen equipment, furniture for classrooms and other necessities needed for day to day operations
  • Bill No. 33-0087-An Act amending title 33, subtitle 1, part 1, chapter 3, section 45 of the Virgin Islands Code by prohibiting the Virgin Islands Bureau of Internal Revenue from assessing penalties and fees for unpaid gross receipts taxes during the time when a business’ gross receipts has not yet exceeded $225,000. The bill was proposed by Sen. Alicia Barnes.

THE OFFICE OF GOVERNOR, JUDICIARY OF THE V.I., OFFICE OF THE PUBLIC DEFENDER, AND THE V.I. TAXICAB COMMISSION SHARES FY 2020 BUDGET

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St. Thomas- Members of the Committee on Finance, chaired by Sen. Kurt Vialet, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Thursday, to receive testimony on the proposed FY 2020 Executive Budget for the Office of the Governor, the Judiciary of the Virgin Islands, the Office of the Public Defender, and the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission. Lawmakers also considered two Request for Appropriation Transfers. Senators will vote on the transfers at the next meeting held on Friday, September 6, 2019.

The Office of the Governor, Director of Business and Administration, Joycelyn Durant stated that the FY 2020 Budget is $10,242,660. In comparison to FY 2019 of $10,117,526, this is an increase of $125,134. Durant requested a lump-sum budget because it allows for the reallocation of funds to address the “often-shifting needs” of the Office of the Governor. The budget breakdown is as follows: $4,937,830 or 48.22% is for personnel services, 4.29% or $450,000 for utilities, 3.18% or $326,030 for supplies, 17.62% or $1,804,876 fringe benefits, 6.93% or $710,000 is for capital outlay, and 19.66% or $2,013,924 is for other services.

Furthermore, Durant mentioned that the monies are required to fund the mandatory costs and planned initiatives for the central operations of the Office. Some of the goals/initiatives for FY 2020 includes repairing post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria structural damages to government buildings such as Government House in both districts, the St. Thomas Annex, and the St. John Battery. Additionally, reigniting participation in the inter-Virgin Islands Council with the British Virgin Islands, creating ADA accessibility awareness, and lobbying on Federal matters affecting the Virgin Islands in Washington D.C. are amongst top priorities for the Office of the Governor; according to Durant.

The FY 2020 governor’s recommended budget for the Judiciary of the Virgin Islands totals $35,246,781. However, Judiciary of the Virgin Islands Chief Justice Rhys Hodge indicated that an appropriation of $43,235,998 for the Judicial Branch and $115,436 for the Judicial Council is an ample amount. Hodge’s request is a reduction of $3.4 million in comparison to the FY 2019 request. “The underfunding has real-world consequences. The Judicial Branch has lost its ability to retain qualified personnel because its salaries are simply no longer competitive,” said Hodge. He added that the FY 2020 request of over $43 million, will allow the Judicial Branch to fill 52 out of 92 existing vacancies.

The Office of the Territorial Defender Chief Public Defender Samuel Joseph indicated that the FY 2020 budget request is $5,310,000. “This work involves a tremendous number of hours in and out the courtrooms. Working evenings and weekends are necessary based on the workload and trial schedules. Attorneys carry home the work and burdens of difficult cases,” said Joseph who defended the proposed budget. Furthermore, Joseph noted that to-date there are 759 cases Territory-wide and that number may increase. Annually, the average caseload for trial for an attorney is 50 to 100 per month.

Levron Sarauw Sr, Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission stated that the FY 2020 recommended budget is $830,841. The breakdown is as follows: $504,974.00 is for personnel service, $238,066.00 is for fringe benefits, $20,500 is for supplies, and $67,300 is for other services. Sarauw mentioned that the main funding source for the Taxicab Commission is the Taxi License Fund. Revenues are generated from monies collected for various services as it relates to the Commission.  

Separately, senators considered the following Request for Appropriation Transfers:

  • NO. 001-19 DEPARTMENT OF PLANNING & NATURAL RESOURCES “To utilize projected savings in Capital Outlay to cover projected deficits in Personnel Services, Fringe Benefits and Other Services & Charge.” This appropriation transfer will allow payment of outstanding compensation for PERB-GSA-01-09 Sec. 530 “Remand” Cooke vs Government of the Virgin Islands.”
  • NO. 002-19 BUREAU OF INTERNAL REVENUE “To request the transfer of vacancy savings from both personnel and fringe benefits to operating expenses in order to facilitate the following housekeeping initiatives: the purchase of equipment (2 – 20 ton A/C units, 9 vehicles, 30 desktops, 2 industrial shredders, and 145 ergonomic chairs), repair and maintenance services for the removal of carpet and the installation of tiles (22 office spaces, 1 conference room and adjoining corridors), air quality cleaning and subsequent testing, painting of the Bureau’s lobby areas and the purchase of the requisite supplies to facilitate these projects as well as to create a reserve with the necessities needed for day to day operations.”

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COMMITTEE MEMBERS UPDATED ON A HURRICANE PREPAREDNESS PLAN FOR ST. JOHN RESIDENTS

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St. John – Members of the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, Public Safety, and Veterans Affairs, chaired by Sen. Steven Payne convened in a meeting at the Cleone Henrietta Creque Legislative Conference Room on Monday, and held a St. John Hurricane Preparedness Briefing.

The purpose of this meeting is to inform the residents on St. John about the being prepared for the potential Tropical Storm Dorian that is expected to become a Category 1 Hurricane by 8:00 am on Wednesday, August 28, 2019. Collectively, officials such as the Virgin Islands Police Departments, the Virgin Islands Fire Service, the St. John Rescue, VITEMA, the Department of Human Services, and other agencies shared safety updates for the upcoming storm.

Residents are advised to listen to various media outlets for official announcements only. Police officers will remain on the road until it is deemed unsafe. “We will not risk our lives during the storm. If you chose not to evacuate to a safe place, the officers will not come out until the storm is over,” said VIPD Lt. Brown.

Thus far, the ports on St. Croix are closed. However, the ports remain open on St. Thomas and St. John. If there are inclement weather services all ports Territory-wide will close. Vessels will be secured on Cruz Bay, St. John. Residents are urged to stock up on foods, water, medicine and necessary items needed to survive a hurricane. The Department of Human Services will provide meals for the seniors and will disseminate additional meals to cover the next two days.

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SENATORS APPROVE NOMINATIONS FOR THE BOARD OF MEDICAL EXAMINERS, THE BUREAU OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY, AND BILLS

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary chaired by Sen. Janelle Sarauw, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Thursday, and voted favorably for the nominations of Dr. Brian Bacot to be a Member of the Board of Medical Examiners District of St. Thomas-St. John and Rupert Ross to be the Director of the Bureau of Information Technology (BIT). The nominations were sent to the Legislature by Governor Albert Bryan; set forth from Section (16) of the Revised Organic Act of 1954, and Title 3, Section 65a of the Virgin Islands Code. Lawmakers also voted and approved several bills. All items approved will be forwarded to the Committee of the Whole for further consideration.

Bacot stated that his main goal is to support best practices for the licensure and certification process at the Board of Medical Examiners. “As we all can agree physicians are a highly sought after and necessary resource for a healthy community, and every effort should be made to provide an appropriate environment for growth, development, and healing for these physicians so as not to lose these resources when they are challenged.” Bacot’s noted that his short-term goals are to “identify and review current known” issues relating to service delivery, facilities, and financial shortfalls.  Streamlining the application process, ensuring compliance of physicians with Board policies, and updating and implementing the policies for the V.I. Medical Licensure is some of Bacot’s long-term goals.

Similarly, Ross indicated that one of the major challenges at BIT is upgrading cybersecurity. It is necessary to establish guidelines with an enterprise-level security structure to prevent and address cyberattacks. Ross said, “There is an immediate need to establish baseline cybersecurity standards for governmental agencies that address governance, budget and resource requirements, security frameworks, data protection, training and awareness, insider threats, and third-party security practices.” Ross mentioned that his goals are to collaborate with agencies and to execute protective strategies to better utilize taxpayers funding by building a strong IT System for the Government of the Virgin Islands.

Separately, lawmakers received testimony, voted, and approved Bill No. 33-0011- An Act amending Title 14 Virgin Islands Code, chapter 60, section 1191 relating to strengthening the loitering law and increasing the penalty for loitering. The Virgin Islands Attorney General Denise George stated that the Department supports the measure despite the challenges of prosecuting perpetrators accused of loitering. “I will like to reiterate that loitering laws have become more difficult to prosecute. Only those statues that have been carefully worded have survived judicial scrutiny and even some of those statues were held invalid.” The Office of the Territorial Public Defender Chief Public Defender Samuel Joseph indicated that presently the language of the measure is vague and can pose as a constitutional challenge if an individual’s fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution is violated.

Policymakers voted with a favorable recommendation for the following measures:

  • Bill No. 33-0082- An Act honoring and commending Robert O’Connor, Jr. for his commitment to the people of the Virgin Islands through his service as a Senator, his membership on the Port Authority Board and his work as a community leader by naming the new Port Authority maintenance building in his honor.
  • Bill No. 3-0020- A Resolution honoring and commending Tishelle Knight for her accomplishment, service and musical contributions to the Virgin Islands.
  • Bill No. 33-0060- A Resolution posthumously honoring and commending Alvin “Alli” Paul for his contribution to the culture of the Virgin Islands, through the Mocko Jumbie artform.
  • Bill No. 33-0040- An Act amending title 20, Part II, chapter 41, section 466, subsection (b) of the Virgin Islands Code to require each passenger in the rear seat of a vehicle to wear a safety belt.
  • Bill No. 33-0086- An Act amending title 19 of the VIC by inserting a new chapter 52, section 1350 requiring all restaurants and establishments that sell food to post signs that demonstrate appropriate first aid for choking.
  • Bill No. 33-0092- An Act amending title 4, chapter 1 of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a new section 7 to provide for the continuing operation of the Judicial Branch of the Virgin Islands in the event of a natural disaster or other emergencies.                                                                                                          ###

SCHNEIDER REGIONAL MEDICAL CENTER, ST. THOMAS EAST END MEDICAL CENTER, CORP., AND THE V.I. LOTTERY SHARES FY 2020 BUDGET

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St. Thomas–Members of the Committee on Finance, chaired by Sen. Marvin Blyden on behalf of Sen. Kurt Vialet, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Thursday, to receive testimony on the proposed FY 2020 Executive Budget for the Schneider Regional Medical Center (SRMC), the St. Thomas East End Medical Center, Corp. (STEEMCC), and the Virgin Islands Lottery (VIL).

The Schneider Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Dr. Bernard Wheatley stated that the FY 2020 Budget is $22 million. This is an operational loss of $7.6 million. However, he is a requesting an additional $6 million totaling $28 million; along with a line item amount of $10 million for capital expenses. Wheatley mentioned that for FY 2020 the overall projected expense totals $80.2 million. In comparison to FY 2019, this is an increase of $3.3 million. Some of the long-term initiatives are upgrading the IT system, onsite oxygen generation, installing energy efficiency with new construction, and decreasing maintenance costs.

Financial assistance from the Government of the Virgin Islands is required to fund key financial priorities totaling $12,614,000, according to Wheatley. The breakdown is as follows: $3 million for GERS enrollment of SRMC employees, $2,752,000 for negotiated union contracts/salary increases, $2,125,000 for the Meditech Software Expanse, $597,000 for a CT scanner, $150,000 for C-Arm equipment operating room, $440,000 for radiographic equipment, $900,000 for heart catheterization/Interventional lab equipment, $2,500,000 radiation oncology equipment, and $150,000 for urology equipment.

Regarding SRMC’s debt, Wheatley mentioned that SRMC has reduced its debt by $18.5 million from FY 2017 to FY 2019, and as of June 30, 2019, there are trade accounts payable debt totaling $24.6 million. Furthermore, the Intra-Agency outstanding debt to SRMC totals $7,038,761; and out of that $7,209,000 is from the Workman’s Compensation Program.

Separately, the governor’s recommended FY 2020 Executive Budget for the St. Thomas East End Medical Center is $1,900,000. However, STEEMCC Executive Director Moleto Smith, Jr. is asking for a higher amount. “We have requested $2,924,229 in funding for FY 2020 for the purpose of addressing the Medicaid Local Cost-share of forty-five percent, as well as to mitigate the millions of dollars of uncompensated care that we will continue to face in the coming year for primary health care services to individuals who are not covered by any type of public health or commercial insurance.” Thus far, only $560,199 was recouped out of $2,962,811 of projected charges for uncompensated care in 2019; the outstanding balance is $2,402,612.

The Virgin Islands Lottery (VIL) Executive Director Nominee Raymond Williams stated that the FY 2020 budget is $20,791,578. The budget breakdown is as follows: $8,453,434 for traditional games, $12,317,644 for compensation from contractors, $10,949,564 for VLT gaming revenue, $1,368,080 for online/scratch games, and $20,500,000 in other income. For FY 2020, Williams indicated VIL’s goals are to fill vacancies and to modernize operations and marking strategies. #

V.I. HOUSING FINANCE AUTHORITY, V.I. HOUSING AUTHORITY, AND THE OFFICE OF COLLECTIVE BARGAINING SHARES FY 2020 BUDGET

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St. Thomas- Members of the Committee on Finance chaired by Sen. Marvin Blyden on behalf of Sen. Kurt Vialet, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Tuesday, to receive testimony on the proposed FY 2020 Budget of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIFHA), the Virgin Islands Housing Authority (VIHA), and the Office of Collective Bargaining.

The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Daryl Griffith stated that for FY 2020 the governor’s recommended budget is $2 million to supplement projected revenues of $14 million comprised of leases, land/home sales, mortgages and federal programs. He mentioned that for FY 2019, there was a financial deficit of $1.8 million. VIHFA incurred the deficit due to hurricane damage repairs, handling disaster-related programs, and hiring new employees for the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG-HD). The CDBG-HD grant allocation totaled $1,983,317. VIHFA also received $158,751 from the Federal Emergency Solutions Grant Program to combat homelessness in the Territory and $3,166,875 for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program in 2019.

Presently, VIHFA is in the process of increasing affordable homes to meet the federal mandate. The cost of constructing the homes totals $30K per lot. The monies are not transferred to homeowners. However, VIHFA is responsible for the expenses, according to Griffith. Furthermore, Griffith shared the strategy for expanding affordable houses. “VIHFA has to develop a subdivision plan before home construction begins and to complete architecture and engineering work are inclusive of infrastructures to include roads, power poles for electricity and lightning. The Authority can always use the additional funding to meet its mandate.”   

The Virgin Islands Housing Authority is federally funded. Therefore, VIHA does not receive monies from the local government. VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham indicated that the President of the United States FY 2019 budget request is $41.4 billion in gross discretionary appropriations for HUD, which is $12.5 billion less than the $53.9 billion approved by the U.S. Congress. Furthermore, Graham noted that the HUD FY 2019 Federal Funds totals $46,430,029. The budget breakdown is as follows: Resident Opportunity & Family Self Sufficiency is $69,380, Housing Choice Voucher Administrative Fees is $1,912,927, the Public Housing Operating Subsidy is $20,660,133, the Capital Fund Grant Program is $9,639,989, and the Housing Choice Voucher Program is $14,147,600. Continuing to implement the Portfolio Repositioning Plan to ensure developments are compliant with Federal mandates and improving preventative maintenance operations are some of VIHA’s FY 2020 goals; according to Graham.

The Office of Collective Bargaining Chief Negotiator Designee Joss Springette, Esq. stated that the FY 2020 budget is $932,153. Out of that amount, $536,570 is for personnel services, $31,000 is for equipment and supplies, $9,500 is for utilities, $206,031 is for fringe benefits, and $149,052 is for other services. “Our goals for FY 2020, are to bring expired contracts up-to-date, reduce caseload and contribute to the overall improvement of labor relations in the government,” she said.                                                                                                                                  ###

LAWMAKERS VOTE TO HOLD TWO BILLS IN COMMITTEE AS IT RELATES TO PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND UPDATED ON SCHOOL READINESS FOR SY 2019-2020

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development chaired by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, met Monday at the Capitol Building, and voted to hold in committee two bills regarding the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDOE). Lawmakers were also updated on school readiness for the 2019-2020 school year.

The two measures that were held in committee were: Bill No. 33-0008, proposed by Sen. Dwayne DeGraff, is an Act amending Title 17 Virgin Islands Code, chapter 11, section 133 relating to school monitors employed by the Department of Education to prohibit school monitors from carrying metal batons while on school premises and Bill No. 33-0019, sponsored by Sen. Janelle Sarauw, an Act amending title 17, chapter 7, section 61a of the Virgin Islands Code regarding the school year.

Regarding Bill No. 33-0008, VIDOE Assistant Commissioner Maria Encarnacion indicated that VIDOE does not support the measure because it is not in alignment with school policies. The use of wooden, metal, or rubber batons should be banned completely in the public schools. “It is important to state from the onset that VIDOE does not support violent or aggressive policing of students, including the use of metal batons, mace or similar devices that can perpetuate violence and cause irreparable harm. The use of batons is not consistent with the school environment the Department wishes to create.” However, Encarnacion noted that presently school monitors are provided with handcuffs, batons, and radios. In 2017, VIDOE provided training for school monitors on the proper use of batons and handcuffs.

Bill No. 33-0019 which seeks to divide the school year into two semesters, provides a funding source for additional expenses caused by the changes, require students to receive 180 hours of instruction, and it provides a beginning and ending date for the school year. Encarnacion stated that VIDOE supports the bill because the school calendar year will reflect academic institutions nationwide. “The school year will begin in the second week in August and end on the last Friday in May. Secondly, dividing the school year into two semesters allows for adequate instructional time and final semester exams to happen before the end of each semester. Lastly, 180 days of instruction is the accepted instructional time in most jurisdictions.” St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers President Carol Callwood mentioned that one of her major concerns is that teachers are compensated for the additional school days in conjunction with the changes of the school year. 

Separately, VIDOE Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin shared an update on school readiness. The first day of public school is Tuesday, September 3, 2019. “While the 2019-2020 school year will look different, given the K-8 models, the shifting and sharing of campuses, is a result of the environment and infrastructural landscape of the Territory,” said Benjamin. She further indicated that funds for summer maintenance were delayed. However, maintenance was completed timely with no effect on the opening of the schools. Data for student preparedness reflects that the Territory-wide percentage gains in proficiency levels from SY2016-2017 to SY2018-2019 except for the 3rd grade in Mathematics and the 11th grade English Language Arts. To date, VIDOE hired 74 new teachers to ensure classroom coverage for both districts. Benjamin stated that VIDOE pays a renewal fee of $361,440 and a hosting fee of $192,780 for the Virgin Islands Visual Information System (VIVIS), an integrated data system that streamlines access to reports, evaluations, and research. Identifying funds to maintain VIVIS is an on-going process. Separately, Benjamin mentioned that VIDOE was awarded 12 grants. However, as of September 30, 2019, there are four grants that are expected to expire. VIDOE is collaborating with Bazilo Cobb Associates, a Third-Party Fiscal Agent to secure grants before the expiration date concluded Benjamin.

BILL PERMITTING ADVERTISEMENTS ON VITRAN BUSES MOVES FORWARD

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St.Thomas–Members of the Committee on Housing, Transportation, Infrastructure and Telecommunications, chaired by Sen. Marvin Blyden convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Friday, and voted favorably for Bill No. 33-0107- An Act authorizing the Commissioner of the Department of Public Works to permit advertisements to be placed on VITRAN buses. The item approved will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Department of Public Works Deputy Commissioner of Transportation Karole Ovesen-McGregor stated that negotiations with potential vendors are in progress despite the lack of proposals submitted in response to DPW’s Request of Proposals. “VITRAN is currently in negotiations with interested vendors and other government agencies to wrap buses. Once a bus is wrapped buses are scheduled for maximum service hours on a fixed route.” She added that available advertisement spaces are on the inside and outside of the VITRAN bus.

Presently, vendors will have an opportunity to advertise on the inside panels. On the outside, there is a space for partial and completed bus wrapping. DPW will like to expand advertisement opportunities by creating spaces at ferry terminals, bus shelters and, VITRAN branded ferry boats; according to Commissioner McGregor. Resident of the U.S. Virgin Islands Bruce Flamon added that advertisement options should also extend to government restrooms and waiting areas. Commissioner McGregor stated that marketing advertisements on VITRAN buses were permitted since 2014. To date, DPW has collected approximately $32,000 from advertisements. Proceeds from revenues collected from bus fares and advertisements are placed in the Public Transportation Fund.

However, in a written document submitted to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands, the Office of Management and Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal stated that OMB opposes the measure. “This legislation may not be necessary because the Commissioner of DPW already has authority under Title 29, Chapter 9 of the VI Code.,” said Director O’Neal. “Additionally, while the bill seeks to have funds that are derived from the advertising deposited into the Public Transportation Fund, it does not speak to what sums are charged or how much could potentially be collected.”

In addition to the bill, senators were updated on the status of natural disaster preparedness from cellular phone providers. External and Legislative Affairs of AT&T of Puerto Rico Area Manager Salvatore Casale indicated that FirstNet, a public safety wireless broadband platform solely for first responders was implemented. Casale stated that for consumers, AT&T continues to bury fiber backhaul network to wireless cell sites and monitor generators for fuel at cell sites and underwater cable facilities. VIYA Vice President of Public Relations and Government Affairs Jennifer Matarangas-King stated that the preparedness plan is inclusive of continuing to replace wooden poles with monopoles at cell sites, adding Spanning Tree Protocol and Digital Switching Controls as a backup to node failures and, strengthening the wireline network. PR Wireless Senior Director of Engineering Edgar Jaen noted that to date there are battery backups at some cell sites, upgrading existing microwave radios and, improving network stability are efforts towards their plan.  

Separately, lawmakers were scheduled to meet with the V.I. Waste Management Authority (VIWMA) to receive testimony on the status of their operations. However, officials from VIWMA and the Telecommunications Industry were a no-show. Ultimately, policymakers voted to subpoena VIWMA and members of the Board of VIWMA to appear before the Senate on Thursday, August 29, 2019, at 5:00 pm.

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