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FISCAL YEAR 2021 GOVERNMENT OPERATION BILLS GETS FAVORABLE VOTE, ONE HELD IN COMMITTEE

ST. THOMAS—Thursday evening, the Committee on Finance continued consideration of the day’s agenda. The Committee voted favorable for the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget Enabling Legislation for the Government of the Virgin Islands and sent the item on to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration; however, with the exception of one item being held in committee for further consideration.

Bill No. 33-0377, an Act providing an appropriation from the General Fund of the Government of the Virgin Islands for the operation of the Government of the Virgin Islands during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0378, an Act providing an appropriation from the Anti-litter and Beautification Fund to the Waste Management Authority and the Dept. of Public Works for operating expenses during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0379, an Act providing an appropriation for the operating expenses of the Virgin Islands Board of Education from the General Fund during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0380, an Act providing an appropriation for the operating expenses of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles of the Government of the Virgin Islands during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0381, an Act providing an appropriation from the business and commercial properties revolving Fund of the Government of the Virgin Islands to the Dept. of Property and Procurement for operating expenses during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0382, an Act providing an appropriation for the operating expenses of the Virgin Islands Career and Technical Education Board from the General Fund of the Government of the Virgin Islands during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0383, an Act providing an appropriation from the Caribbean Basin Initiative Fund for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0384, an Act providing an appropriation for the operation of the Judicial Branch of the Government of the Virgin Islands during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0385, an Act providing an appropriation for salaries and expenses of the Board of Elections and the Office of the Supervisor for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0386 an Act providing a lump sum appropriation from the Health Revolving Fund for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0387, an Act providing an appropriation for the operating expenses of the Virgin Islands hospital and health facilities corporation from the General Fund of the Government of the Virgin Islands during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0388, an Act providing a lump sum appropriation from the indirect cost Fund for salaries, operating expenses and for other purposes of the Office of Management and Budget, the Division of Personnel, the Dept. of Property and Procurement, and the Dept. of Finance for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0389, an Act providing an appropriation for the operating expenses of the Virgin Islands Office of the Inspector General from the General Fund of the Government of the Virgin Islands during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0390, an Act providing an appropriation for the sum of $14,500,000 from the Virgin Islands insurance guaranty Fund as a contribution to the General Fund for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0391, an Act amending Virgin Islands Code, relating to the balance in the Insurance Guaranty Fund to amend the currently required $20,000,000 amount which is set to increase to $50,000,000 on September 30, 2020, to $30,000,000.

Bill No. 33-0392, an Act providing an appropriation for the sum of $1,100,000 from the interest earned on debt services reserves as a contribution to the General Fund for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0393, an Act providing an appropriation from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0394, an Act providing an appropriation for the operation of the Legislature of the Virgin Islands during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0395, an Act providing an appropriation for $78,960 from the VI Lottery as a contribution to the General Fund for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0396, an Act providing an appropriation for the operating expenses of the Public Employees’ Relations Board and the Labor Management Committee for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0397, an Act providing an appropriation to the Public Services Commission for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021, for operating expenses.

Bill No. 33-0398, an Act providing an appropriation for operating expenses of the Waste Management Authority from the sewer system Fund of the Government of the Virgin Islands for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0399, an Act providing an appropriation for operating expenses of the Dept. of Public Works and the Waste Management Authority from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund of the Government of the Virgin Islands for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021. This bill was held in the Committee of Finance.

Bill No. 33-0400, an Act providing an appropriation for the sum of $2,000,000 from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund as a contribution to the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0401, an Act providing an appropriation to the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0402, an Act providing an appropriation from the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund to the Office of Management and Budget, Virgin Islands Police Dept., the Dept. of Public Works, the Virgin Islands Waste Management Agency, and the Dept. of Tourism during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0403, an Act providing an appropriation from the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund to the Dept. of Education, Dept. of Agriculture, and Dept. of Sports, Parks, and Recreation during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0404, an Act providing an appropriation for the sum of $10,000,000 from the Transportation Trust Fund as a contribution to the General Fund for the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0405, an Act providing an appropriation for the salaries and expenses of the University of the Virgin Islands during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0406, an Act providing an appropriation for the operating expenses of the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority from the General Fund of the Government of the Virgin Islands during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0407, An Act to make FY 2020 Funds available until expended by amending Act No. 8219, thereby providing funds for the renovation of the Board of Education’s Guirty House and Act No. 8245 thereby providing Funds for DPNR’s office relocation; DOE’s VI history books, Legislative Civic Education initiative, stem summer project, Claude O. Markoe steelpan trolley, LEGVI’s gasoline excise tax consultant/lobbyist; and DSPR Funds for the sports commission and track and field federation equipment.

Bill No. 33-0408, an Act providing an appropriation from the Government Insurance Fund of the Government of the Virgin Islands to the Dept. of labor and the Dept. of Finance for operating expenses during the Fiscal Year October 1, 2020, to September 30, 2021.

Bill No. 33-0409 an Act amending Act No. 8171, section 1(b) by changing GERS direct contribution to outstanding employer contributions only.

Bill No. 33-0412 an Act making an appropriation of $30,000 to the University of the Virgin Islands as a grant to the league of women voters to conduct an educational campaign on the referendum to be held at the November 2020 general election.

Bill No. 33-0413 an Act making an appropriation of $250,000 from the General Fund to the Dept. of licensing and consumer affairs for acquiring cannabis-related software.

Finance committee members who voted on Thursday evening enabling legislation were Chairman Kurt Vialet, Senators Marvin Blyden, Donna Frett-Gregory, Allison DeGazon, Janelle Sarauw, and Oakland Benta.

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WASTE HAULERS WILL GET PAID

ST. THOMAS–The Committee on Finance, chaired by Senator Kurt A. Vialet, met Thursday morning in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall, St. Thomas. The Committee heard testimony on Bill No.33-0375-An Act appropriating $15 million from the General Fund to the Waste Management Authority (WMA)) to pay outstanding debts to the waste haulers. The Bill is proposed by Senators Vialet and Donna Frett-Gregory.

The proposed legislation stipulates that $15 million will be appropriated from the General Fund to the WMA for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2020, and for outstanding vendor payments to waste haulers. No later than ten days after the enactment of this Act, the WMA shall submit a list of all waste haulers owed outstanding vendor payments along with the debt amount for each hauler to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

It further stated that no later than 30 days after the funds appropriated have been allotted; the WMA shall provide a report to the Legislature documenting the payments to the waste haulers.

Jenifer O’Neal, Director of OMB, said it is known that the WMA has struggled for years to be solvent and to make payments to its contractors on a timely basis. This has led to strikes and other forms of expression of dissatisfaction from the haulers, which has negatively impacted the general public overall through the non-collection of trash at numerous bin sites.

According to O’Neal, the Government’s revenue collections are currently outpacing expenditures. However, she continues to reiterate that the appearance of a surplus must be viewed cautiously as year-end spending and other obligations that have not yet been posted in the Government’s accounting system. Considering the undeniable need to address this ongoing matter of outstanding payments to the Authority’s vendors, Director O’Neal was prepared to support an appropriation of $10M because she could not ascertain the exact amount owed to the haulers at this time.

After much consultation and with the understanding that invoices will have to be presented to OMB for approval before payment authorization, she is now prepared to support the Bill in principle and an appropriation “up to” $15M, with the funding authorization remaining available until expended.

Roger E. Merritt, Jr., Executive Director of the WMA, said he recommends passage of the Bill so the WMA can pay the Solid Waste Service Providers who provide invaluable, essential services to the Territory.

The Committee voted in favor of the Bill and sent it to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration. However, the committee continues to meet this hour considering the remaining of the day’s agenda.

Senators at Thursday’s morning hearing were Chairman Kurt A. Vialet, Donna Frett-Gregory, Allison DeGazon, Janelle Sarauw, Novelle Francis, Jr., Oakland Benta, Myron Jackson, Alicia Barnes, and Athneil “Bobby” Thomas.

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SMALL BUSINESS RELIEF GRANT APPROVED IN FINANCE

ST. THOMAS—During the afternoon portion of Thursday’s Finance meeting, the Committee took testimony on Bill No. 33-0410 an Act providing for the disbursement of monies to the Virgin Islands Economic Development Agency (EDA) to establish the Small Business Relief Grant Program and the COVID-19 Disaster Loan Program. The proposal is sponsored by Senators: Donna M. Frett-Gregory, Kurt Vialet, and Janelle Sarauw.

 

In his testimony, Wayne Biggs, Jr., Chief Executive Officer of the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority (“USVIEDA”), said The USVIEDA is in full support of the Bill. He pointed out that many businesses in the Territory were able to benefit from the federal assistance administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) through its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL).

 

He informed the Committee that many small mom and pop businesses could not access these programs for various reasons and remain in need of financial assistance to remain viable. Economic Development Bank of the U.S. Virgin Islands (EDB) added Biggs, participated in the PPP, and issued 69 PPP loans throughout the Territory valued at $545,810 to qualified small businesses. A breakdown of loans made by the EDB by island and total value are as follows: St. Croix: 30 loans – $251,846; St. John: 8 loans – $51,240; St. Thomas: 31 loans – $242,724.

 

According to Biggs, the proposed legislation is timely, and that the grant and low-interest loan programs created by the proposed Bill will have a positive effect on the small business community and the economy of the Virgin Islands as a whole. He recommended several technical amendments that several senators agreed were necessary.

 

According to the Bill sponsors, Senators Vialet, Frett-Gregory, and Sarauw, the Bill specifically provides for the disbursement of monies to EDA to fund programs to establish the Small Business Relief Grant Program; authorizing the EDA giving grants not to exceed $10,000 to a small business that has been negatively impacted as a result of the shutdown imposed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Covid-19 Disaster Loan Program, and authorizing the EDA to give loans not to exceed $50,000 to businesses negatively impacted by the shutdown because of Covid-19.

 

The Bill also authorizes EDA to promulgate rules and regulations to administer the programs, and most importantly, report to the Legislature on the status of the programs not later than November 15, 2020, with a final report, due no later than 60 days after the December 31, 2020 deadline. COVID-19 CARES ACT funded this program.

 

Senators at Thursday’s Finance meeting were: Chairman Kurt Vialet, Donna Frett-Gregory, Allison DeGazon, Janelle Sarauw, Marvin Blyden Dwayne DeGraff, Novelle Francis Oakland Benta, Myron Jackson, Alicia Barnes, and Athneil “Bobby” Thomas.

 

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CTE LEGISLATION HELD AND ONLINE LEARNING MEASURE MOVES FORWARD

ST. THOMAS—The Committee on Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, held a committee meeting on Wednesday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall.

The Committee took testimony and voted on two proposed measures:
Bill No. 33-0344, proposed by Senator Dwayne M. DeGraff, sought to amend the Virgin Islands Code to allow the Department of Education to hire, on a contractual basis, licensed electricians, plumbers, mechanics, masons, cosmetologists, carpenters, drafters, and any other licensed professionals considered necessary to teach career and technical education courses to supplement the Career and Technical Education Center’s programs.
Bill No. 33-0360, proposed by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, sought to amend the Virgin Islands Code by adding a section implementing and outlining the requirements for online learning.

In support of his proposed legislation, Sen. DeGraff said that Career and Technical Education (CTE) is his passion. He added that the idea to get professionals to teach vocational and industrial trade had been a daunting task. He pointed out that one can learn a business to support themselves and families in the future.
Arah Lockhart, Chairperson, VI Board of Education, said in regards to Bill No. 33-0344, the Board recognizes, appreciates, and supports the intent of Senator DeGraff’s efforts. She added that they would like to clarify their objection to any contract being offered when a qualified teacher on the island is available to provide instruction. Furthermore, they hope that this legislation will be applied territory-wide to Career and Technical Education programs in both districts.

Rosa Soto-Thomas, Chairperson, President VI Board for Career and Technical Education St. Croix Federation of Teachers, stated in her testimony that they understand the impetus for Bill No. 33-0344 to address the shortages of CTE teachers, especially in the Building Trade. She said this is the wrong way to go about solving the problem.
According to Soto, Virgin Islands teachers with 0-8 years of experience is $44,000 and topping off with 30-years of experience is $62,000. She wanted to know in this aspect, what salary will be offered to private CTE Teachers? Furthermore, will these individuals be ready to write lesson plans and be prepared to handle the rigorous evaluations as other CTE teachers.

Carol Callwood, President, St. Thomas/St. John Federation of Teachers stated, “As the union responsible for collective bargaining for educational personnel of the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE), we are responsible not only to fight for safe and sanitary working conditions but also to provide fair and adequate compensation work that they do.
She added that one of the issues in hiring qualified teachers to fill the CTE programs and the regular education vacancies is the low salary offered by VIDE. She encouraged raising the wages to eliminate the challenge in hiring teachers in any field of study.

Racquel Berry-Benjamin, Commissioner, VIDE said the proposed legislation if approved, does not extend the Department any new authority, as the Department presently has the power to contract for professional services as those presented in Bill No. 33-0344. She added that the proposed legislation does not outline how this new section will comport with the powers of the CTE Board.

The Committee also took testimony on Bill No. 33-0360, an Act amending the Virgin Islands Code by adding a section implementing and setting the requirements for distance/online learning proposed by Senator Frett-Gregory.
According to the sponsor, Senator Frett-Gregory, the discussion around this piece of legislation ensures that 9-12 grade students are afforded the opportunity in the areas that they would not ordinary received due to a teacher shortage. She added that through long-distance learning, these students would have the ability to receive credit.
Commissioner Berry-Benjamin said Bill No. 33-0360 is timely as distance learning has become necessary in the technological world in which we live. It is considered essential for success in today’s modern way of living, working, and learning.

She pointed out that the VIDE should have modernized its operations to include distance learning some years ago; however, from the viewpoint of “nothing happens before its time,” the time has come to transform. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided the needed financial resources and shift in the Virgin Islands Community’s thinking, which is necessary to build and implement distance learning.

Christine Fox, Interim Executive Director of Florida State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), said she supported the proposed legislation. According to her, SETDA has provided authoritative reports used by national and state organizations to support broadband access both on and off-campus. She added that a robust infrastructure enables schools to expand learning options, empowers students to create content, participate in virtual courses that may not be otherwise available on their campuses, and collaborate with experts or other students remotely.
The Bill was amended and favorably approved by the Committee and sent to the Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

The Committee received updates from the DOE about the transitional process status from classroom/in-person distance learning; the new pre-K classrooms for the school year 2020-2021 in the St. Thomas/St. John District; federal funds expiring on September 30th, 2020; and other matters that have impacted the Department’s operation due to COVID-19.
According to Commissioner Berry-Benjamin, the most significant obstacle impacting the Department’s operations, as it relates to starting the school year, was the unavailability of funds in March to purchase laptops for all public school students when schools first closed due to COVID-19. The Department was required to wait until July 25th to access CARES Act Funding to purchase the necessary technology for students.

Senators at Wednesday’s hearing were Chairperson, Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, Kurt Vialet, Kenneth Gittens, Allison DeGazon, Janelle Sarauw, Dwayne DeGraff, Novelle Francis, J., Oakland Benta, Steven Payne, Sr., and Marvin Blyden.

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MORATORIUM ON GAS STATIONS GOES TO THE FULL BODY

ST. THOMAS–The Committee on Rules and Judiciary, chaired by Senator Janelle K. Sarauw met on Tuesday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall St. Thomas.
Bill No. 33-0358 An Act authorizing the transfer of Government-owned real property located at #51 Hannah’s Rest, Frederiksted, St. Croix.

The property which is owned by the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority and is to be transferred to the Virgin Islands Police Department for the construction of a police station in Frederiksted, St. Croix. The Bill was sponsored by Senator Kenneth L. Gittens
According to Senator Gittens, it’s a general consciousness that this legislation is necessary to create a police command center in Frederiksted. He pointed out that the Chairman of the Water and Power Authority (WAPA) Board asked that the Bill be amended to reflect languages stipulating that WAPA is the entity transferring the land and that if the facility was not built within five (5) years then said land should return to WAPA.
He added that the project will move quickly at no cost to the government due to the fact the pertinent federal monies have been secured.
The Bill was voted out of the committee with a favorable recommendation and forwarded to Full Body for further consideration.

The second item on the agenda was Bill No. 33-0347, An Act amending the Virgin Islands Code to provide scholarship benefits for persons receiving home instruction. The proposal was sponsored by Senator Donna Frett-Gregory.
Senator Frett-Gregory said it was important to codify the language of the legislation to avoid any contradictions about individuals studying through homeschooling. She added that these individuals should be entitled to receive free scholarships once they graduate from any high school in the Virgin Islands.
The Bill was voted out of the committee with a favorable recommendation and forwarded to the Full Body for further consideration.
Bill No. 33-0300 An Act amending the Virgin Islands Code and seeks to establish a numerical limitation on the licenses issued for gasoline stations within the Districts of Christiansted and Frederiksted and St. Thomas/St. John. The measure is sponsored by Senators Janelle K. Sarauw and Kenneth L. Gittens.

Senator Gittens said we need a city plan in place to eliminate how many of these gas stations could be built in the territory. He added some of the gas stations can be hazardous and
dangerous to our citizens. He noted the number of the gas stations that are built on a one-mile strip, particularly on an island that is only 84 square miles.
Senator Myron Jackson said gas stations in our territory are out of control. He added that we are destroying our cultural landscape.
Chairwoman, Senator Sarauw asked the question as to what kind of landscape are we creating for our future generation by building so many gas stations. She pointed out the number of gas stations that have already been built in St. Croix (28) St. Thomas (32) and St. John (3).

According to the Senator, a moratorium is not unconstitutional. She added that we cannot continue to “spot zone.”
The Bill was amended by Senator Sarauw regarding the date when the Bill would be effective, and by the reference of the districts of Frederiksted and Christiansted and the name St. Thomas/St. John and instead insert the term, “The Virgin Islands.”
The Bill as amended was voted out of the committee and forwarded to the Full Body for further consideration.
Senators at Tuesday’s hearing were Chairwoman Senator Janelle Sarauw, Kenneth Gittens, Myron Jackson, Novelle Francis, Jr., Javan James, Sr., Donna Frett-Gregory, and Steven Payne.

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COMMITTEE ON CULTURE CONSIDERS A LENGTHY AGENDA

ST. THOMAS—The Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation and Aging, chaired by Sen. Myron Jackson met on Monday to receive testimony on government and private owned nursing home facilities in the territory impacted by COVID-19 and consider several measures.

Commissioner Justa Encarnacion of the Dept. of Health and Incident Commander for the Pandemic Emergency Command Council noted that COVID mitigation efforts are challenged by several factors that include: high poverty rate; high percentage of our population over 65; status of our hospitals and our incomplete recovery from the two Category-5 hurricanes in late 2017; limited healthcare capacity; workforce shortages; and geography.

The Operational Planning Guide for Long-term Care Facilities was designed to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 in long-term care facilities in the USVI prior to the availability of a vaccine or treatment. It also strives to prevent the transmission of disease in facilities, reduce transmission following COVID-19 detection, act as a guide for facility testing practices. “The DOH has and will continue to provide support in the form of staffing, education, and training on infection control practices,” concluded Encarnacion.

As soon as a positive case is confirmed, additional training is conducted per infection control practices and re-testing every 3-6 days until there are no new positives found within a 14-day period. Epidemiology, lab, and supporting divisions within the DOH have been successful in testing, diagnosis and implementing mitigating efforts to ensure patients are kept safe in non-congregate and congregate living facilities.

Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez of the Dept. of Human Services spoke on the impact of the Coronavirus within the two-government operated assisted living facilities in the territory. Two very prominent features of the COVID-19 policy were the strict “No In-Person Visitation” and daily temperature screenings of all staff and residents. Under the Division of Senior Citizen Affairs, all eligible seniors over the age of 60 and adults with disabilities ages 18-59 years old are afforded services and care through twelve essential programs.

The Homes for the Aged, Herbert Grigg located on St. Croix and Queen Louise located on St. Thomas, are both 24-hour residential facilities providing nursing care and support services to eligible individuals 60 years and older. The bed capacity has been greatly reduced from 40 to 25 beds for Herbert Grigg and from 29 to 17 bed for Queen Louise. “With the “No In-Person Visitation” policy, family members and other supportive individuals and groups (i.e. religious and community agencies) have the option to communicate with residents via telephone or Skype,” said Causey-Gomez.

On July 15, 2020, DOH confirmed that a Herbert Grigg Home employee tested positive for COVID-19 on the previous day. Unfortunately, on August 12, 2020 DOH confirmed test results revealed several Queen Louise Home asymptomatic staff and residents were positive with COVID. Of seventeen (17) residents tested, ten (10) returned positive results, and of twenty-five (25) Queen Louise Home staff tested, six (6) tested positive. On August 25, 2020, one (1) staff at Lucinda Millin Home tested with a confirmed positive result. All staff and residents tested were confirmed negative for Covid-19 and their status remained the same following tests done on September 4, 2020.

The following measures were approved and sent to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration:

-Bill No. 33-0367:  Act amending title 3 Virgin Islands Code, chapter 1, section 27f, to change the composition of the Commission on Aging and its duties and for other related purposes. Sponsored by Senator Myron D. Jackson

-Bill No. 33-0364:  Act amending title 1, Virgin Islands Code, chapter 7, by inserting section 111 relating to the recognition of indigenous Indian tribes as official Indian tribes of the Virgin Islands, and title 3, Virgin Islands Code, chapter 14 by inserting section 234 creating the Virgin Islands Indigenous Indian Tribe Identification Card. Sponsored by Senator Myron D. Jackson

-Bill No. 33-0369: An Act authorizing the removal of the copper bust of King Christian IX from the Emancipation Garden and replacing it with the statue of “the Conch Shell Blower” statue and appropriating $20,000 from the St. Thomas Capital Improvement Fund for the removal and replacement of the bust. Sponsored by Senator Myron D. Jackson

-Bill No. 33-0150: An Act posthumously honoring and commending Manassah Francis for his significant entrepreneurship and service to the people of the Virgin Islands. Sponsored by Senator Marvin A. Blyden and Senator Donna Frett-Gregory

-Bill No. 33-0233: A Resolution honoring and commending Mr. Randolph “Junior” Donovan      and Mr. Kashief “DJ General Kuntry” Hamilton for their heroism in saving the life of a cruise passenger at the West Indian Company Dock. Sponsored by Senator Athneil “Bobby” Thomas.

Other testifiers present during the meeting:

Dr. Esther Ellis, Territorial Epidemiologist

Dyma B. Williams, Interim CEO of the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center

Sean Krigger, Director of the State Historic Preservation Office

Troy DeChabert-Schuster, AARP State Director of the Virgin Islands

Activist Michael Vante

  1. Leba Ola-Niyi, Program Coordinator of the Pan African Support Group

Felipe Ayala, Chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission

Glenn Davis, Educator and Culture Bearer

Maekiaphan Phillips, President of Opi’a Taino

Robert Mukaro Borrero, Taino Cacique, Consultant & Cultural Advisor

Anthony Ottley, Acting Chief Executive Officer of the West Indian Company, Ltd.

Joseph Boschulte, Commissioner of the Department of Tourism

Kashief Dave Hamilton, St. Thomas Resident

Randolph Donovan, Jr., St. Thomas Resident

Members present during the meeting: Chairman Myron Jackson, Vice-Chair Javan James, Sr., Senators Alicia Barnes, Oakland Benta, Dwayne DeGraff, Steven Payne, Sr., Athneil “Bobby” Thomas and non-committee member Sen. Marvin Blyden.

 

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33RD LEGISLATURE AMENDS ACT NO. 8329

ST. THOMAS — On Thursday, Members of the 33rd Legislature, led by Acting Senate President Myron D. Jackson, convened in a Special Session, called by Governor Albert Bryan, Jr., to receive testimony and consider amending Act No. 8329, the Matching Fund Securitization Act of 2020, amendments to the agreements with Diageo USVI, Inc., and Cruzan VIRIL, Ltd., and the ancillary agreements related to the issuance of the Matching Fund Securitization Bonds (MFSB).

The proposed measure, Bill No. 33-0372, amended Act No. 8329, specifically Title 29 of the VI Code, adding a new Chapter 24, creating the Matching Fund Securitization Corporation as a special purpose, independent and autonomous, public corporation, and governmental instrumentality.

The Body dissolved into Committee of the Whole to receive testimonies virtually from the VI Public Finance Authority (PFA), Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Finance (DOF), and members of the Governor’s financial and advisory team. Nathan Simmonds, PFA’s Finance and Administration Director, discussed the key provisions of the Act and overview of the transaction. “The Government of the VI, through the Public Finance Authority, previously sold bonds in order to provide funds for the cost of infrastructure and economic development, and to support rum production by Cruzan and Diageo.”

Currently, the U.S. Treasury collects an excise tax of $13.50 per proof gallon of rum manufactured by Diageo and Cruzan on St. Croix and shipped to the United States, and the Government receives a rebate of $13.25 per proof gallon from the excise taxes that the federal government collects (Matching Fund Receipts or Rum Cover-Over). The monies are used to pay periodic principal and interest to the bondholders, the rum companies, according to agreements executed for economic development, and the Government. This secured lockbox structure will remain in the New Matching Fund Bonds indenture with the Matching Fund Securitization Corporation replacing the PFA’s role as issuer in the old agreement.

In this new transaction, the new corporation would issue new MFSBs with a lower interest rate than that currently being paid on the Existing Matching Fund Bonds, and lower overall debt service requirements. As presented by the PFA, this would result in more of the Matching Fund Receipts flowing to both the Government and the rum companies after the debt service is paid. The increased amount of Matching Fund Receipts remaining will continue to go to the Government and the rum companies under their existing agreements.

The Corporation will acquire all of the Virgin Islands Government’s rights, title and interest to the Matching Fund Receipts to be paid to the Government by the U.S. Treasury as long as the Matching Fund Bonds are outstanding and issue the New Matching Fund Bonds and the residual certificate to pay the purchase price for the Matching Fund Receipts. The Governor will, then, direct the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury and the Department of the Interior to pay the Matching Fund Receipts directly into the restricted account created and maintained by the trustee for the New Matching Fund Bonds.

Specifically, the proposed securitization is expected to generate an additional $255 million in cash flow over the next three (3) fiscal years (2021, 2022, and 2023) at an average of $85 million per year. This increased cash flow would increase the liquidity of the Virgin Islands, and that increased liquidity would make more money available for the operation of the Government, including the funding of certain projects and priorities for the people of the Virgin Islands, at a time when COVID-19 has severely impacted our economy and revenues.

Once the transaction is completed and the refunding bonds issued, the savings derived from the refunding will be presented to the Legislature with the Governor’s recommendations for the projects to be funded.

After several rounds of questioning, the Body rose into Session, and voted on Bill No. 33-0372, as amended. The measure was approved with eight (8) votes in support, six (6) in opposition and will be sent to the Governor for further action.

Other invited testifiers present during Committee of the Whole included: OMB Director Jenifer O’Neal; Finance Commissioner Kirk Callwood; PFA Special Counsel, Miles Plaskett, Esq. (Duane Morris LLP); Bond Counsels Lisa Forcht Esq. (Hawkins Delafield & Wood, LLP), Pedro Hernandez, Esq. and Karol Denniston, Esq. (Squire Patton Boggs); General Counsel, Geoffrey Eaton, Esq. (Winston & Strawn LLP); Richard Tortora, President, Capital Markets Advisors, LLC; Kye Walker, Esq., Managing Attorney (The Walker Legal Group); and Adam Lorbert, Senior Vice President & Lead Investment Banker, Ramirez & Company.

Members present during Session included: Acting President Myron Jackson, Senators Alicia Barnes, Marvin Blyden, Donna Frett-Gregory, Janelle K. Sarauw, Athneil “Bobby” Thomas, Kurt Vialet, Oakland Benta, Dwayne DeGraff, Kenneth Gittens, Allison DeGazon, Javan James Sr., Stedmann Hodge, Jr., and  Steven Payne, Sr.

 

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OOG AND DOJ CLAIMED DECREASES IN 2021 BUDGET REQUEST

ST. THOMAS– The Committee on Finance, chaired by Senator Kurt Vialet continued budget hearings on Thursday in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall St. Thomas on the Fiscal Year 2021 Executive Budget. In the morning portion of the hearing, the Committee took testimony regarding the Office of the Governor (OOG) and the Department of Justice (DOJ).

In his testimony, Kevin Rodriquez, Deputy Chief of Staff for OOG stated that for Fiscal Year 2021, the overall proposed budget OOG is $10,966,511, which reflects an increase of approximately 7.07% over the Fiscal Year 2020 budget appropriation of $10,242,660.

He said for FY 2021, personnel costs are estimated to be $4,656,290 which represents 42.5% of the proposed budget. Those personnel costs are for seventy-nine (79) full-time positions, funded one hundred percent by the General Fund. He added that Employee Fringe Benefits account for $1,879,671. According to Rodriquez, fringe benefits cover employer’s retirement contributions, workers’ compensation premiums, social security contributions, or the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), Medicare, and health insurance premiums.

He told the Committee that the increase of the OOG’s FY2021 budget by $723,85 is above their FY2020 request and is attributed to the inclusion of the $1,277,050 appropriation for Legal Services of the Virgin Islands. He said before the Fiscal Year 2021 budget recommendation, this appropriation was part of the general miscellaneous section of the Executive Budget. Absent the inclusion of this line item, the actual budget request for the Office of the Governor has decreased by $553,199 when compared to Fiscal Year 2020.

The rehabilitation of Government House on St. Thomas, Rodriquez said is currently in progress. The work is being performed by J. Benton Construction for $4,116,082.30. This being an Actual Cost project FEMA will pay the entire cost of the renovations less the required 10% match if the project stays within FEMA’s Scope of Work. The Office of the Governor anticipates utilizing funds from the Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery Program to satisfy the required matching funds for this project. Based on changes and unforeseen conditions encountered, the expected completion date will likely be extended beyond the original contract completion date of February 12, 2021.

He pointed out that the Battery, restorations have commenced. Custom Builders, LLC, won the contract with a bid of $1,131,538.94. However, the discovery of asbestos in the removal of the old floor tiles along with some other structural issues not covered by the A/E scope will necessitate a contract modification. This project will be funded by insurance proceeds. The Public Assistance grants for repairs to Government House Christiansted and the Arthur Abel Complex in Frederiksted is near to being obligated. It is a generous grant that will allow for the repair of longstanding items at both facilities.

According to the Deputy Chief of Staff Rodriquez, the strategic priorities of the Bryan-Roach Administration remain unchanged these include, continued efforts towards the fiscal and operational stabilization of our government; rebuild the public trust in government through greater transparency; ensure proper stewardship of federal disaster recovery funds and timely execution of projects; and pursue private sector driven economic development.

In her testimony, Denise George, Attorney General, said this year, the Governor, in consultation with staff and herself, is requesting the amounts from the General Fund— Personnel Services-$8,354,004.00; Fringe Benefits-$3,013,298.00; Supplies (including office supplies, operating supplies, vehicle supplies, and small tools and minor equipment)-$442,443.00; Other Services (including such things as rent, training, professional services, automotive repair, airfare, and advertising)-$5,728,577.00; and Capital Projects—Machine Equipment & Misc.-$120,000.00. The total General Fund, she added came to $17,658,322.00.

According to the Attorney General, $9,121,286.00 of the Department’s budget is funded by federal grants. Thus, the total of the Department’s proposed budget, including local and federal funds, is $26,779,608.00. She pointed out that this represents a decrease or cut from the 2020 Fiscal Year in the amount of $1,311,420.13.

She said that one of the chronic challenges facing the Department is attorney retention. Meeting its obligations under the various collective bargaining agreements will go a long way towards the Department achieving this objective. Unfortunately, she added, delays in funding step increases for attorneys who are on board has, to some extent, prevented the Department from achieving its retention goals.

According to her, once an attorney joins the Department, it takes years for the attorney to move to the appropriate step on the pay scale. Newly hired attorneys, however, are paid on the current pay scale when he or she joins the Department. This creates an inequitable situation where two attorneys may be barred for the same number of years, but the newly hired attorney receives a higher salary than the attorney who has been working with the Department for several years.

This disparity, she said does little to help morale or enable the DOJ to retain experienced attorneys. She added, to place attorneys on the appropriate step, DOJ needs an additional $125,455.00 for Fiscal Year 2021.

Thursday’s FY 2021 Budget Hearing will continue with presentations from the Bureau of Internal Revenue, Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, Public Employees Relations Board (PERB), and the Virgin Islands Labor Management (LMC).

Senators present during today’s hearing were Chairman Senator Kurt Vialet, Myron Jackson, Novelle E. Francis, Marvin Blyden, Athneil “Bobby” Thomas, Kenneth Gittens, Donna Frett-Gregory, Janelle Sarauw, Dwayne DeGraff, and Oakland Benta.

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JUDICIAL BRANCH OF THE V.I., THE V.I. HOUSING FINANCE AUTHORITY, THE OFFICE OF ADJUTANT GENERAL, AND THE ELECTIONS SYSTEM OF THE VI SHARES FY 2021 BUDGET

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Finance, chaired by Sen. Kurt Vialet convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Wednesday to receive testimony on the proposed Fiscal Year 2021 Executive Budget for the Government of the Virgin Islands of the United States. Invited testifiers are the Judicial Branch of the Virgin Islands (JBVI), the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, the Office of the Adjutant General (OTAG), and the Elections System of the Virgin Islands.

The governor’s recommended FY 2021 budget for the Judicial Branch of the Virgin Islands totals $31,825,388 to be disseminated as a lump sum. Out of that, $103,285 is for the Judicial Branch and $31,722,103 is for the Supreme Court. This is a significant decrease in comparison to the Fiscal Year 2020 appropriation of $35,246,781. Honorable Rhys S. Hodge, Chief Justice of the Virgin Islands stated that the monies are insufficient for daily operations and JBVI was not consulted when the governor determined the budget. According to Hodge, the Judicial Branch can sufficiently operate with a minimal FY 2021 budget request of $39,179,342 or a 19% increase with an additional $118,292 or 13% increase for the Virgin Islands Judicial Council. The budget breakdown of the $39,179,342 is as follows: $21,163,105 for personnel, $8,917,274 for fringe benefits, $4,523,554 for other services and charges, $1,815,410 in projected capital expenditures, $2,100,000 for utilities, and $660,000 for supplies.

Daryl Griffith, Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority noted that the governor’s proposed FY 2021 budget totals $20,621,289. The budget breakdown is as follows: $7,606,525 for personnel, $700,000 for capital outlays, $3,369,734 for fringe benefits, $106,000 for supplies, $8,524,030 for other services, and $315,000 for utilities. Griffith indicated that despite the recommended budget, VIHFA accumulated a deficit of $3.1 million since FY 2019. Hiring new employees for the CDBG-DR Program and for disaster-related programs in addition to repairing structures damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria are the reasons for the steep budget deficit. However, Griffith mentioned that in FY 2021 CDBG-DR, FEMA, and insurance proceeds will reimburse VIHFA for accrued expenses.

Office of the Adjutant General Brigadier General Kodjo Knox-Limbacker stated that the governor’s recommended budget for FY 2021 totals $1,813,127. Comparatively, to FY 2020 budget appropriation of $2,316,512 this is a decrease of $503,385 or 21.73%. Additionally, OTAG is slated to receive a total of $93,770,000 in Federal Funds managed by the United States Property and Fiscal Officer on behalf of the National Guard Bureau. Thus far, some of the accomplishments are inclusive of the reconciled FEMA Audit and paid vendors for repairs from the hurricanes in 2017, paid vendors for daily operational services for unpaid services since 2014, and to complete renovations, repairs, and maintenance for facilities in the St. Thomas-St. John District and the St. Croix District.

Lastly, Caroline Fawkes, Supervisor of Elections of the Elections System of the Virgin Islands mentioned that the governor’s proposed FY 2021 budget totals $2,144,000. The budget breakdown is as follows: $887,000 for personnel services, $50,000 for Capital Outlays, $265,400 for fringe benefits, $777,100 for professional services, $65,000 for supplies, and $99,500 for utilities. Challenges are inclusive of funding to fill vacancies such as legal counsel, encouraging voters to vote, and upgrading job descriptions.                                                                                                              ###

SENATORS UPDATED ON THE STATUS OF THE V.I. DEVELOPMENT DISABILITIES COUNCIL AND THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services chaired by Sen. Oakland Benta convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Tuesday to receive testimony on infrastructure, daily operations, and federal grant funds of the Virgin Islands Developmental Disabilities Council (VIDDC). Lawmakers were also updated on the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Virgin Islands. Invited testifiers are officials from the Virgin Islands Department of Human Services (DHS), the Virgin Islands Developmental Disabilities Council (VIDDC), and the Virgin Islands Department of Health (DOH). “This is a very informative meeting that allows for clarity and transparency on the roles of VIDHS, VIDDC, and the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Sen. Benta said.

Kimberly Causey-Gomez, Commissioner of DHS noted that VIDDC was restructured in 2011 to be inclusive of people with “intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families to allow participation in the services and programs.” As a result of the re-establishment of VIDDC, the agency is currently receiving federal funds awarded to DHS through the Consolidated Block Grant. Furthermore, Causey-Gomez mentioned that DHS is under the rules, policies, and procedures of the Social Services Block Grant. VIDDC receives $250,000 per year to maintain operations from DHS through the Consolidated Block Grant application. A local match is not required for VIDDC because they are under the DHS Consolidated Block Grant. Causey-Gomez added that according to the expenditure rules and procurement of the Government of the Virgin Islands all monies must be expended and the obligation and liquidation of the annual grant award for VIDDC have to be completed within a two-year fiscal period.

Presently, the Virgin Islands Developmental Disabilities Council lacks onsite offices that force employees to work from home. VIDDC is short-staffed and is unable to hire employees due to the lack of offices. VIDDC has three checking accounts to manage operations and federal funds, according to VIDDC Territorial Executive Director Yvonne Petersen. Furthermore, Peterson stated that the daily operations are inclusive of conducting administrative tasks and overseeing the Development Disabilities Program with a focal on advocacy and public policy. Regarding system change, Petersen indicated that VIDDC conducted a comprehensive review and assessment of the Public Transportation System and hosted an ADA training with stakeholders and partners. Lastly, the Virgin Islands Developmental Disabilities Council are recipients of Federal Funds through the DHS Social Services Block Grant, a re-allotment from The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico’s Federal Funds, and a Family to Family/Health Information Center Grant.

Separately, policymakers were updated on the status of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Territory. DOH Commissioner Justa Encarnacion stated that there is a steady decline in positive cases. To date, there are 17,459 people under investigation, 1,191 positive cases, and 18 deaths. Moreover, DOH expanded testing with a total of 24 Abbot Now machines. The CDC deployed Epidemiologists to the Territory to assist with infection control. There is an increase in medical-grade PPE stockpiles and there are adequate medical supplies. Encarnacion further mentioned that both hospitals expanded their COVID-19 capacity in case there is a surge. Through a partnership with the Port Authority and the Department of Tourism, travel-related screening of all passengers has expanded and a large phase of the governor’s travel advisory is in effect.                                                                                    ###