ST. THOMAS- Members of the 33rd Legislature led by Senate President Novelle E. Francis, Jr. convened in Committee of the Whole at the Capitol Building on Wednesday to receive testimony on the status of the territory’s economy from officials from the Governor’s Financial Team Officials from the Virgin Islands Public Finance Authority, the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA), the V.I. Office of Disaster Recovery and Witt O’Brien also testified.
Due to the adverse impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic which resulted in a sharp decline of the tourism industry, the financial state of the Territory has its challenges with a major revenue deficit estimated at $150 million for FY 2020 indicated Jenifer O’Neal, Director of the Office of Management and Budget. She cautioned that apart from the V.I. Police Department and the V.I. Fire Service, departments, and agencies will face budgetary cuts totaling $69.6 million specifically for personnel and fringe benefits in the 3rd and 4th quarter of this fiscal year. In response to Sen. Athneil Thomas’ inquiry concerning budget reductions, O’Neal stated that vacancies, travel expenses, and other operating costs are the primary focal points for budget cuts, not employee layoffs. Separately, O’Neal noted that the General Obligation Debt in the Virgin Islands is approximately $1.14 billion with an outstanding balance of $831 million. However, none of the $75 million awarded to the Government of the Virgin Islands through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act can be used to offset budget shortfalls.
For FY 2020, VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith noted that VIHFA paid contractors a total of $84,669,512.60 in Disaster Recovery Funds. In response to a line of questioning, from Sen. Francis regarding unpaid contractors, Griffith stated that $442 million was submitted to FEMA of which $330,196,644.69 was paid. To date, major companies such as AECOM, APTIM, and Witt O’Brien received payment. However, there is $336 million in unpaid invoices that were submitted to FEMA. “These payments need to be made sooner rather than later. This body allowed the administration to borrow $80 million to pay off owed vendors. Yet our constituents are complaining due to the lack of payment,” said Sen. Francis.
Adrienne L. Williams-Octalien, Director of the Virgin Islands Office of Disaster Recovery, mentioned that Post Hurricanes Irma and Maria, there are approximately 1500 projects territory-wide categorized under Health and Hospitals, Roads, Power, Housing, and Schools – each with varying deadlines. Additionally, Williams-Octalien noted that the Top 100 Recovery Projects were designed to target areas that are adversely affecting large populations within the community, including upgrading and installing the VITEMA Tsunami Warning System.
Lastly, Brad Gair, Senior Managing Director for Witt O’Brien’s and Principal Executive for the U.S. Virgin Islands Disaster Recovery Contract mentioned that accomplishments include adopting the Federal Highway Administration Road Standards, the WAPA Composite Pole Installation Program, and the FEMA approved industry standards for communications, healthcare, education, water, wastewater, and emergency service.