ST. THOMAS – The Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure and Planning, under the leadership of Senator Milton E. Potter convened in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall. Lawmakers received an update on the current status of the Virgin Islands’ disaster recovery efforts, specifically those relating to the Virgin Islands Office of Disaster Recovery, the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, and the Virgin Islands Department of Education.
In Block 1, Adrienne Williams-Octalien, the Director of the Virgin Islands Office of Disaster Recovery delivered testimony. Per Williams-Octalien’s testimony, she stated that the efforts to rebuild the territory after two Category 5 disasters are herculean at best but provide an equal amount in return for opportunities not just only to rebuild but to transform the infrastructure of the territory. Williams-Octalien stated that the initial years of the disaster were focused on performing temporary repairs to patch up hurricane damage until permanent projects could be funded. ODR has successfully increased anticipated allocations from $8 Billion to $12 Billion with the potential to exceed $15 Billion over the next few years. In 2023 alone, more than $2.2 billion has been obligated as of August, which is a 100% increase compared to funds secured in 2022. This makes the total amount of obligated funds $8.5 billion.
Of the 1500 FEMA Public Assistance Projects, sixty-two remain to be obligated. Forty-seven of these projects are fixed grant projects that encompass more complex educational, health care, and infrastructure facilities. This is significantly less than the 150 fixed cost offers that were being tracked in June 2022. Once funds are obligated, the Office of Disaster Recovery makes sure that the funds are spent. The territory has spent $3.2 billion to start and complete projects across various sources. FEMAs Public Assistance Program (PA) is the main source of the Office’s recovery efforts. PA has received $6.2 Billion, of which 2.7 billion has been expended. All PA Projects require a 10% match. FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program has received $178 Million, of which thirty-three million has been expended to date. These funds do not have a match and are granted at 100% of project cost. The Department of Transportation Federal Highway Emergency Relief program (FHWA-ER), which is locally administered by the Department of Public Works has been obligated $66.3 million and has expended 52.7 million to perform needed repairs on roads and bridges. There are no match requirements. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant (CDBG-DR), administered locally by the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority, has received $1.9 Billion, including recently approved funding for the mitigation and electric grid tranches. $296.6 Million of this has been expended to date.
Other disaster related funds from other agencies have been made available, including the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Education (DOE), and the Department of Commerce, which have made an estimated $215M available to the territory. Of that amount, $116.5 million has already been spent. Additionally, during FY 2023, the Office of Management and Budget utilized $497,755 in local funds to pay for the 10% local match cost share for projects funded by FEMA Public Assistance. There are currently ninety-three active construction projects. Notable projects include the reconstruction of seven schools and six head start centers in the territory. The Charlotte Kimmelman Cancer Center, the Myrah Keating Clinic, the Charles Harwood Medical Complex, and repairs to the Queen Louise Home. In Additional, thirteen parks and public facilities including the Emile Griffith Ball Park, Charles Seales Fire Station, the Enid M Baa Public Library and Archives, and the Charles W Turnbull libraries are set for renovation. Infrastructure projects include WAPA underground work in the St. Thomas District and improvements to roads and drainage systems in Fish Bay, Botany Bay, and Altona Lagoon. In the last Fiscal Year, there has been completion of the JFL North Temporary Hospital, the Elaine Sprauve Library, Phase 1 on the Walter IM Hodge Pavilion, the Skills for today, Program, and road projects. The Florence Williams Library and the DOH WIC building on St. Thomas are expected to have ribbon cuttings before the end of the year.
Williams-Octalien stated that there were challenges, such as lag in project timelines, disruptions in the supply chain, and delayed release of funds. The lack of affordable housing in the territory has also contributed to issues. In Addition to the housing shortage, the 10% match required for FEMA’s PA program is a major concern and the governor continues to advocate for a waiver. Additionally, there is an expected shortfall of 5,000-7,000 skilled laborers in the territory.
Additionally, Dayna Clendenin, the interim CEO of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority delivered testimony. Clendenin stated that the Authority had made remarkable process in the last year, calling it a “period of growth, development, and transformation” as they continue to help the territory with its recovery. During this time, the authority secured approval on its first attempt from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development on its First Substantial amendment to the VI Housing Finance Authority mitigation Action plan (MIT Plan). This plan lays the foundation for the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority to complete the acquisition of VITOL’s propane supply infrastructure to the territory.
The Authority, under its New Housing Infrastructure Construction Program, has begun the process to construct forty-three single family homes. Twenty-three of these homes will begin construction in March 2024, and the remaining twenty will begin construction in June 2024. Architectural and Engineering services for 30 percent of the designs have been put out to bid. This includes the Queen Louise Revitalization (16 townhouses) and Estate Fortuna (12 Houses) with eight projects on St Thomas and seven homes in Mount Pleasant (West) on St Croix. Clendenin also made mention of the Donoe Redevelopment on St. Thomas, which was 38 Percent complete and a year behind schedule, with $10.2 million of the thirty-four million allocated spent. The goal is to restart the project by the first quarter of 2024. This includes the construction of eighty-four units in fourteen buildings that will serve as rental housing for residents of the Estate Tutu Hi-Rise Apartments. Construction and renovations for twenty-nine units are in progress. Eight units are in Campo Rico, St Croix, and site control is pending for Estate Taarenberg on St. Thomas, which would provide eleven units. The Kronegade Inn Renovation Project, involving eighteen emergency housing units in Christiansted, St. Croix, has recently received approval. These renovations are anticipated to start in the second quarter of FY 2024, with a budget of $3.6 million. VIHFA is evaluating its existing emergency housing stock, including Charlotte and Staabiland Apartments in St. Thomas and Anna’s Hope, Profit, and Campo Rico in St. Croix, to support partner agencies in addressing the needs of the homeless and those in need of emergency, transitional, and supportive housing. The EnVision Tomorrow program has completed twenty-nine homes. Forty additional homes in the territory are in various states of solicitation, design, and construction. Clendenin stated that there were challenges like incomplete payment packages from contractors, which hindered payment processes. Over $5 Million has been paid to contractors so far.
Progress continues on public facilities in the territory, such as the Sister Emma Cottage which would assist the Queen Louise Facility for children with disabilities. Lutheran Social Services is finalizing designs and preparing to issue a Request for Proposal, starting the commencement of construction. It is anticipated that 10% of the project will be completed by March 2024, with full construction by September 2025. $13.4 Million has been allotted to various public services initiatives, including Liberty Place, Meeting the Needs of Our Community, and Project Promise. $95 Million has been allocated for the Randolph Harley New Generation Project Acquisition, installation, and commissioning of 36–40-Megawatt capacity of power generation. It is expected this project will be completed in December 2023. VIHFA has dedicated $19.6 Million (CDBG-DR) funds to the VI waste Management authority to construct six convenience centers in the territory. Vendor Contracts are expected to be signed by January 2024 with 30 percent completion by May 2024 with full completion by January 2025. The Red Hook Center construction contract is set for February 2024 with full completion by February 2025. The Anguilla Landfill Phased Closure and Southeast Extension Project will be completed in six phases. It calls for the closure of the 30-acre site and using the southeast region of the landfill to receive solid municipal waste. The delineated area will be used until a new landfill is constructed. Funding for this project is $51 Million from CDBG-DR.
In Block 2, Dr. Dionne Wells-Hedrington, the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Education delivered testimony. In Wells-Hedrington’s testimony, she mentioned that the Department has been working diligently to address issues and implement upgrades. The Department has established a petty cash system where maintenance directors in both districts can access $50,000 for emergency repairs at school sites. The operations division is scoping out services to solicit services contracts so if there is an immediate need, that the awarded contractor can respond immediately. The establishment of the School Maintenance and Construction Division is in progress. Maintenance and Operations personnel costs have been moved under the Bureau’s code. According to Wells-Hedrington, the directors were delighted to see the increase in local funding given to the division with the establishment of the bureau. Historically, the maintenance unit received $2 Million territory wide, which as now increased to $5 Million territory wide. The bureau has also received a one-time amount of $7.5 Million and reprogrammed public finance authority funds totaling $3,417,978.25. Maintenance activities include enhanced HVAC systems, Electrical and Plumbing Upgrades, renovated classrooms, painting and repairs, safety upgrades, and landscaping and ground maintenance.
Kitchen upgrades are underway, which will allow districts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing for health conditions to be improved in kitchens where food is prepared for students. Plans were placed out for bids to renovate school kitchens at Central, Woodson, Gardine, Muckle, and Ricardo Richards in St. Croix. A task order for an architectural firm to design renovations for kitchens in the St. Thomas- St. John district at schools where kitchens will not be modernized or replaced has been prepared. A list of kitchen equipment needed has been produced. Fencing will be repaired and installed at various campuses throughout the territory. These sites include in the St. Thomas/St. John District, Boschulte, Edith Williams, Kean, Gomez, Sibilly, and Muller. The list of schools receiving fencing in the St. Croix District are Education Complex, Larsen, Rivera, Woodson, Andrews, Markoe, Gardine, Muckle, Ricardo Richards and STX Central. The Department is building for future growth in the territory. Current enrollment in the territory’s public schools is 10,166 students. Facilities are being built for a capacity of 14,375 students.
The Department is working with the Program Management PM firms to develop implementation timelines. $6 Million in permanent projects has been completed and $186 million in projects is currently under construction. Design teams have been selected for the New Central High School, the New Charlotte Amalie High School, and the Boschulte PreK-8 have bene selected. The Department of Property and Procurement is preparing the contracts. Design is in progress for Henderson, Markoe, and Lockhart. Local funds have been leveraged to start projects early, including the New Arthur A Richard School Demolition, Evelyn Williams School Demolition, Charlotte Amalie High School Demolition, Gladys Abraham Campus Modernization for an adult CTECH Skills Center and Adult Education, and Charlotte Amalie High School 9th Grade Annex. Wells-Hedrington spoke of challenges as it pertains to school construction, such as timely payment of contractors.
Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Milton E. Potter, Marvin A. Blyden, Dwayne M. Degraff, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Kenneth L. Gittens, Marise C. James, Franklin D. Johnson, and Carla J. Joseph.
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