ST. THOMAS – The Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance, under the leadership of Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory convened in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall to receive close out testimony concerning the Fiscal Year 2024 Executive Budget for the Government of the Virgin Islands of the United States.
Primary testimony was delivered by Jenifer O’Neal, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. In primary testimony delivered by O’Neal, on June 6, 2023, a total budget of $1,423,604,413 was presented for Fiscal Year 2024. This amount reflected $969,086,891 for the General Fund, $84,386,078 for Other Appropriated Funds, $35,217,548 in Other Non-Appropriated Funds, and $334,913,897 for Non-Disaster Related Federal Funds.
An updated budget of $942,686,361 for the General Fund and no change to all other categories for a total proposed budget of $1,397,203,884 was presented. The budget update includes adjustment to revenue projections, as well as proposed expenditures for several departments and agencies. Per O’Neal’s testimony, the territory’s economic and physical recovery from the 2017 hurricanes, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. ARPA funds have been used for things such as road repair, non-profit contributions, homeowner and rental assistance, and continued health care services. Private and Public Sector hiring has increased, supported in industries tied to tourism, such as accommodation and food services, retail, and professional scientific and technical services. The unemployment rate has fallen to an average of 3.7% in the territory, (4.3% in STX and 3.3% in STTJ) in July 2023 as compared to 4.8% in July 2022 (STTJ 4%). The strong momentum has now slowed due to the limited capacity in workforce in the territory. This has impacted projects, including disaster recovery projects, which is causing projects to take much longer than expected to be completed. The territory has usually been able to secure workforce assistance from Puerto Rico, however, due to infrastructure projects being undertaken there, the workforce is not available.
Tourism, the major economic driver for the US Virgin Islands has declined from the visitor arrival highs experienced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the USVI was one of the few locations that remained open. The territory had 1.8 Million visitors in July 2022, versus 1.4 Million visitors in July 2023. The Average Daily Rate (ADR) in the territory now exceeds $600 per night for hotel rooms, making the USVI one of the most expensive places to visit. Additionally, there has been a reduction in the number of flights that arrive in the territory, resulting in a reduction of visitor arrivals.
Updates to actual revenue collections through July 2023, along with economic factors have been updated to $944,972,341. Through August 18, 2023, revenue collections slightly outpaced projections and models are projecting that collections will remain on par into Fiscal Year 2024. The General Fund budget is expected to be reduced from $969 Million to $943 Million. This reduction is due to the fluidity of revenue projections and budgetary discussions that were had with agencies over the summer. According to O’Neal’s testimony, the territory is well poised for economic growth through the completion of disaster recovery projects. The Government has made inroads towards reducing the high public debt load and stabilizing the pension system. Some notable adjustments to the budget include the removal of $6.87 Million for projected health insurance increase under the division of personnel, an increase of $1.3 Million to the department of Justice to provide for payment of an outstanding settlement, reduction of $10 Million from the Wage Adjustment Line Item, and reduction of funded vacancies by approximately $18 Million while also increasing the critical hire line item to $3.5 Million. Additionally, O’Neal urged the body to limit imposing any additional appropriations throughout the fiscal year, stating that doing so would constitute an unfunded mandate.
Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Marvin A. Blyden, Diane T. Capehart, Samuel Carriόn, Dwayne M. Degraff, Ray Fonseca, Kenneth L. Gittens, Javan E. James, Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Milton E. Potter.
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