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JFL LEADERSHIP EXPLAINED DELAY OF JFL NORTH PROJECT

ST. CROIX– The Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services chaired by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr., held a public hearing on Friday in the Frits E. Lawaetz Conference Room, St. Croix. The purpose of the hearing was to update Governor Juan F. Hospital and Medical Center’s (JFL) building project.

In his opening statement, the Chairman said in recent weeks, there have been troubling reports about the hospital’s operations, coupled with additional delays in the long-awaited completion of the JFL North. The hearing was conducted to reassure the community that JFL provides quality care and is the home of skilled and compassionate healthcare providers. He added their priority is to bring healthcare to an optimal level as legislators and community members.

In concluding, he said he could not stress enough that healthcare is not a privilege. Still, a right that should be available and accessible to all Virgin Islanders, and this position shared by President Biden, clearly stated that in his address to Congress on Wednesday night.

Dyma B. Williams, Interim Chief Executive Officer, JFL, said the projects are in various stages towards completion, and all Furniture, Fixtures, and Equipment have been purchased and installed, while the inventory verification is currently in progress.

CEO Williams also stated that each item received and installed is will complete Biomedical inspection, location verification, and tagging to ensure that all inventory is appropriately marked, tested, and readily identifiable. When asked what attributed to the JFL North project delay, CEO Williams said the contractual and the procurement process. She indicated that the specific basis of design elements excluded from the original RFP’s scope of work and, thereby, the original contract in early 2018.

In addition, the medical gases, fire lines, potable water, hot water, sewer lines, and other critical utility connections were to be connected to the existing, damaged JFL building. According to Williams, completed projects should have been included within the original 2018 contract. However, she added that FEMA funding requires in 2018 that the work be completed parallel with JFL North.

Williams also noted the following challenges toward completion are: (1) to connect JFL North to the existing utility, sewage, and medical gasses through the Virgin Islands Cardiac Center (VICC), which is most adjacent to JFL North, and (2) complete the Medical Building correctly. She added that JFL successfully extended the customized piping and temporary connections to the VICC to connect to JFL North in conformity with this plan.

According to her, JFL requested an assessment by their certifier. However, the certifier indicated that he would not certify the connection of the existing medical gasses and utilities from JLF to VICC and JFL North.

Regarding COVID-19 delays, CEO Williams said it resulted in the holds of the project. She pointed out that they experienced delays in delivering the furniture, fixtures, and equipment—a significant delay in completing Radiology due to the COVID-19 exposure on the vessel sailing this equipment to the Territory.

In a brief update, Williams said FLAD had been approved as the Architectural and Engineering firm for the permanent JFL hospital. Based on research and discussions with healthcare builders, including Flad, the planning and design of the permanent JFL hospital will also take about 18 to 24 months.

According to Williams, they hear the disappointment and frustration of the community, as they have had to announce delay after delay of critical health care infrastructure.

Chairman Francis, Jr., said the residents of St. Croix must have confidence in JFL leadership, staff, and the ability to provide quality care.

Senators at Friday’s hearing were Chairman Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Senators Marvin A. Blyden, Kurt A. Vialet, Samuel Carrión, Alma Francis-Heyliger, Janelle K. Sarauw, and Donna Frett-Gregory.

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THE VIRGIN ISLANDS WATER AND POWER AUTHORITY AND THE VIRGIN ISLANDS WASTE MANAGEMENT AUTHORITY SHARES UPDATE

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure chaired by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Thursday, and received testimony regarding the status of the infrastructure hardening and the integration of renewables into the infrastructure of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA). Additionally, officials from the Virgin Islands Waste Management (VIWMA) shared an update of the initiatives, programs, projects, and processes that are related to the Territory’s infrastructure. Invited testifiers are officials from WAPA, VIWMA, and the Office of Disaster Recovery.

Post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria that occurred in 2017, the top priorities of the WAPA mitigation projects are inclusive of interconnecting critical facilities and customers on the underground system, the battery systems, and placing the existing electrical overhead transmission and distribution system underground. Additionally, hybridizing the generation mix including smaller units and hardening remaining systems with composite poles are also among key components of the mitigation projects; according to WAPA Interim Director of Transmission and Distribution Ashley Bryan who testified on behalf of Interim Executive Director Noel Hodge. Bryan indicated that the deadline for completion of all mitigation projects is December 2022. WAPA Mechanical Engineer Denika Charles mentioned that although the installation of composite poles on Water Island was completed in 2019, the work on the remaining islands is ongoing.

To date, out of 2,333 composite poles a total of 813 were installed on St. Thomas, out of 4,003 poles only 1,453 were installed on St. Croix, and out of 1,960 poles, only 966 were installed on St. John. Sen. Kurt Vialet noted that sadly the contract started and then paused delaying the installation of the composite poles. He hopes that hurricane season is inactive to further allow WAPA to strengthen the transmission system and to complete pole installations. WAPA Electrical Engineer Cyril Andrew mentioned that challenges delaying the completion of the mitigation projects are the number of mandated documentation and reporting required for funding and the high cost for industry materials. Regarding repairing or replacing the water infrastructure, WAPA Interim Chief Operating Officer for the Water Systems Don Gregoire noted that WAPA along with Witt O’Brien is conducting an analysis and data collection that are essential to securing federal funding to replace severely damaged water systems on St. Croix.

Separately, VIWMA in conjunction with local and federal partners reviewed hurricane damages and now there are a total of seventy-two projects. To date, fifty-six projects are obligated and sixteen are unobligated, according to Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien. The key components of the obligated projects are funding operations for management, debris clearance, completing permanent projects to harden the infrastructure, and disposing of green and white waste. VIWMA Executive Director Roger Merritt, Jr. noted that there are budgetary shortfalls such as insufficient appropriations for operations, setbacks in receiving insurance proceeds to rebuild the St. Croix Transfer Station, and the reallocation of the St. John Tourism Fund. Additional challenges are antiquated infrastructure and facilities as well as the lack of state-of-the-art equipment. Williams-Octalien cited that two major concerns about the infrastructure are the lack of funding to repair wastewater lines and separately, the Sewer Rehab Project outside of Christiansted.

Separately, Merritt mentioned that there will be Convenience Centers in both districts that will have an attendant to assist residents with organizing waste. Some of the ongoing work at bin sites include fencing, monitored scheduled bin pick-ups, and the installation of cameras. In response to the lack of enforcement officers at bin sites to curtail illegal dumping, Sen. Sarauw said, “There was an increase in the budget appropriated to VIWMA. Therefore, vacancies should be filled. Currently, VIWMA lacks an enforcement director, compliance officers, and additional staff is required. We cannot want progress when we are not doing what is necessary to achieve it.”

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RULES COMMITTEE ADVANCE BILLS TO THE FULL BODY

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Rules and Judiciary chaired by Sen. Milton Potter, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Thursday, and voted favorably on several measures including a bill that seeks to clarify the limitation on the amount of governmental or quasi-governmental boards and commissions on which Commissioners and Directors of the Virgin Islands Government can serve. All approved items on the agenda will be forwarded to the Full Body for further consideration.

Policymakers voted and approved: Bill No. 34-0005- An Act amending Title 3 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 5, subchapter 1, section 65a, subsections (c), (d), and (e) relating to filling vacancies on boards and commissions to clarify the limitation on the number of governmental or quasi-governmental boards and commissions on which commissioners and directors of the Virgin Islands Government can serve, while serving on the board or commission of any autonomous or semi-autonomous agency; and for other related purposes.

Collectively, committee members were in support of the measure. Sen. Potter indicated that it is wise to offer alternative appointees as a substitute although they are assigned based on subject matter expertise. Concurringly, the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory stated there are challenges when commissioners come before the Legislature of the Virgin Islands and it seems as though they are disconnected. A lot of it has to do with the added responsibility of serving on numerous boards and commissions. Equally, in favor of the bill, Karl Knight, Chief of Staff of the Office of the Governor noted that granting a sitting governor some measure of discretion in how to best deploy his Cabinet-level personnel in their fiduciary roles ultimately serves the best interest of the Government of the Virgin Islands.

Separately, senators received testimony, voted, and approved two measures seeking to develop a minimum criterion for the Virgin Islands Public Services Commission (PSC) and the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority Governing Board (WAPA). Invited testifiers were officials from the PSC, WAPA, and the WAPA Governing Board. Standing in support of Bill 34-0025, Donald Cole, Executive Director of PSC mentioned that the language of the measure is at the request of the Commission, which has urged the updating and reform for many years. However, Anthony Thomas, Chairman of the WAPA Governing Board stated that Bill No. 34-0026 will become more of a stumbling block than a solution if the legislation is enacted. Thomas stated that the Authority has made enormous progress since September 2017.

  • Bill 34-0025- An act amending Title 3, Chapter 16, Section 273 of the Virgin Islands Code by establishing minimum criteria for Public Services Commission members and changing the number of its members. The measure seeks to reduce the 7 voting members to 5 and reduce the quorum requirement from 4 to 3 members. Sponsored by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw
  • Bill 34-0026- An act amending Title 30, Chapter 5, subchapter II, section 103 relating to the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority to establish minimum criteria for the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority Governing Board and changing the number of its members; and amending section 104(b) to change the number of members of the Governing Board constituting a quorum from five to four. Sponsored by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw
  • Consequently, lawmakers voted with a favorable recommendation for the following:
  • Bill No. 34-0014- An Act appropriating $1,600,000 from the Communities Facilities Trust Account for the four community facilities projects on St. Croix, Virgin Islands including the projects of the pier at King’s Alley Hotel in Christiansted, the dock at Gallows Bay Marine Facility and the roll-on roll-off ramp at the Gordon A. Finch Molasses Pier at Krause Lagoon. Sponsored by Sen. Donna A. Frett- Gregory, by request of the Governor. Co-Sponsored by Senators Samuel Carrión and Genevieve Whitaker
  • Bill No. 34-0020- An Act appropriating $675,000 from the Community Facility Trust Fund to the Caribbean Drag Racing Association for restoration of facilities at the St. Croix Motor Sports Complex, making an appropriation and for other related purposes. Sponsored by Sen. Kurt A. Vialet and Samuel Carrión. Co-Sponsored by Senators Novelle Francis, Jr. and Javan James, Sr.
  • Bill No. 34-0024- An Act amending Act No. 8365, relating to the fiscal year 2021 operating budget for the Government of the Virgin Islands to appropriate $3,533,333.34 to the Department of Justice to pay the settlement agreement of Joe Harold d/b/a Vanterpool Enterprises v. Government of the Virgin Islands, to appropriate $2,000,000 to the Department of Labor for the payment of outstanding Worker’s Compensation payments to medical providers to appropriate $40,000 to Clean Sweep Frederiksted for the beautification of the town of Frederiksted; and amending Act No. 8411 to increase the Grand Total General Fund appropriations. Sponsored by Senators Kurt A. Vialet, Donna Frett-Gregory, and Janelle Sarauw. Co-Sponsored by Senator Samuel Carrión
  • Bill No. 34-0003- An Act amending Title 29 Virgin Islands Code, chapter 3, subchapter I, section 235(c) relating to the period within which the Zoning Administrator must act on a building permit application submitted to the Department of Planning Natural Resources to set time limits; requiring the Department to implement an Electronic Permitting System; amending chapter 5 section 296 relating to fees and fines for building permits to require that three (3) percent of the fees collected under that section be deposited into the Department’s Reclamation Fund for maintaining the electric permitting system; and amending title 12, section 911(f)(4) relating to the Natural Resources Reclamation Fund to include three (3) percent of the fees collected in 29 V.I.C. 296 as a funding source for the Natural Resources Reclamation Fund. Sponsored by Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory. Co-Sponsored by Senators Samuel Carrión and Genevieve Whitaker
  • Bill No. 34-0013- An act appropriating $2,050,000.00 from the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund for replacement of the existing, deteriorated tender landing pier and repairs at the Ann E. Abramson Marine Terminal in Frederiksted, St. Croix. Sponsored by Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory
  • Bill No. 34-0008- An Act appropriating $272,000 from the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund for of the Police Athletic League Headquarters in Estate Whim, St. Croix. Sponsored by Senator Javan E. James
  • Bill No. 34-0023 An Act amending Title 12 of the Virgin Islands Code by adding a chapter 2A to establish the Invasive Species Eradication Community Program; establishing the Invasive Species Eradication Community Program Fund and an Imprest Account Fund for the payment of bounties under the Program; and appropriating $10,000 from the Animal Fund to the Invasive Species Eradication Community Program Fund. Sponsored by Senators Kenneth Gittens and Franklin Johnson
  • However, the following was moved to the committee of jurisdiction: Bill No. 34-0004- An Act amending Title 33 Virgin Islands Code, subtitle 1, part 1, chapter 5, section 91 relating to the payment of fuel taxes to change the time for remittance of the tax to the Bureau of Internal Revenue; and section 94 relating to persons required to file returns on the fuel taxes and related products derived from the oil in the Virgin Islands. Sponsored by Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory. Co-Sponsored by Senators Samuel Carrión and Genevieve Whitaker                                                                                               ###

THE V.I. DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION AND THE V.I. DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC WORKS UPDATE SENATORS ON DISASTER RECOVERY PROJECTS

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure chaired by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Wednesday, and met with officials from the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE) to receive testimony on the comprehensive progress of the recovery/rebuild of the school and facilities infrastructure in the Territory. Additionally, lawmakers received an update from the Virgin Islands Department of Public Works (DPW) on the initiatives, projects, and processes that are related to the disaster recovery of the infrastructure in the Territory.

Presently, some of the major challenges facing VIDE is obligating permanent projects, the lack of an Emergency Maintenance Fund, and a Routine Maintenance Fund to address existing maintenance issues on 43 sites totaling 2,734,485 square feet Territory-wide. The annual cost of maintenance totals $13,617,736; according to VIDE Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin, who shared the recovery update. To better serve approximately the 10,000 PreK-12th grade student population, Benjamin noted that by consolidating the footprint from 43 sites to 23 sites, not only will maintenance become manageable but there is a fiscal reduction of $7 million annually. Regarding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Benjamin indicated that an estimated $160 million was obligated to VIDE for emergency repairs and to construct temporary buildings. Thus far, 74% of the obligated funding has been drawn down and the remaining 26% is committed. Much of the obligated funding was utilized to build temporary modular units for the Charlotte Amalie High School, Julius E. Sprauve School, and Arthur A. Richards Junior High School.

In terms of rebuilding schools and facilities, VIDE Chief Operation Officer Dr. Dionne Wells-Hendrington noted that the New Schools Construction Advisory Board was formed. One of the major accomplishments of the Advisory Board was the development of the Facilities Master Plan Guiding Principles (FMP) that are inclusive of the whole child, equity, and addressing the needs of all students, and integrating technology. The PreK-8th grades consolidation model was also implemented in FMP. Hendrington stated that the St. Croix District facilities will decrease from 22 to 9 and on the St. Thomas-St. John District from 24 to 12. However, Sen. Sarauw urged VIDE to conduct an analysis or a comprehensive study to determine the pros and cons of the consolidation of PreK-8th grades. “The concern stems from past experiences with block scheduling of 90 minutes which adversely impacted the arts and music programs. Then there was the implementation of Common Core learning without realizing cultural differences,” Sen. Sarauw said. “Data from an analysis is needed to show how consolidating PreK-8th grades best benefits the Virgin Islands because what may work for one place may not apply to another.”

Separately, The Virgin Islands Department of Public Works Commissioner Nominee Derek Gabriel stated that some of the major challenges plaguing the department are lack of sufficient staff such as engineers, technical experts, and construction managers. Despite staff shortages, DPW is managing over 200 disaster recovery projects. Gabriel mentioned that the Office of Highway Engineering received an estimated $68 million to manage the Federal Highway Administration Emergency Relief projects. To date, $22 million was expended and the balance is reserved for construction projects. The Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien shared the breakdown of FEMA Public Funds. Thus far, $52.7 million was obligated to DPW and $38.8 million was expended. Management costs totaled $2.8 million, $47.2 million was utilized for debris removal post-storms, and $2.7 million was for permanent work.

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DPNR AND VITEMA SHARES STATUS OF DISASTER RECOVERY PROJECTS

ST. JOHN- Members of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure chaired by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw, convened in a meeting at the St. John Legislative Annex Cleone Henrietta Creque Conference Room on Monday, and met with officials from the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR) to receive testimony on disaster recovery programs and initiatives under the jurisdiction and financial stewardship post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria that occurred in 2017.

Currently, the major disaster recovery projects under the jurisdiction of VITEMA are inclusive of the Hermon Hill Facility Wind Retrofit and Safe Room, repairing the St. Thomas VITEMA Emergency Operations Center, the Hazard Mitigation and Resilience Plan, and Tsunami Siren Repair; according to VITEMA Director Daryl Jaschen. A total of $22.5 million was awarded to the Hermon Hill Facility Wind Retrofit and Safe Room from the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program. To date, VITEMA achieved the completion of a revised budget, the initial Architectural and Engineering Phase, and the submittal of the request to expand the existing structure.

Moreover, Jaschen noted that although VITEMA has yet to receive a financial award from FEMA to repair the St. Thomas VITEMA Emergency Operations Center, bids were submitted for repairs. One of the major challenges is damaged roof drain gutters. Unfortunately, when it rains, water leaks into the already repaired air conditioning units, causing further damage. Subsequently, Jaschen noted that FEMA obligated $4.9 million to VITEMA to develop an updated Hazard Mitigation and Resilience Plan in partnership with the University of the Virgin Islands. The intent is to replace the 2019 version with a renewed theme of resiliency and long-term sustainability that supports mitigation strategies.

Regarding the Tsunami Warning System Alternative Project, VITEMA was obligated $1.6 million and the work is halfway completed. The purpose of the project is to repair 44 tsunami warning stations Territory-wide. Out of that, Jaschen indicated that on the St. Thomas-St. John District there are 27 sites slated for repairs and 17 in the St. Croix District. Additionally, sirens slated to be secured on steel poles installed 50ft above ground and 8ft underground at 42 stations. The Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien added that VITEMA in collaboration with the vendor, American Signal, will start installations in March 2021 and conclude in July 2021. Sen. Sarauw inquired about alternative alert methods to inform residents of a tsunami. In response, Jaschen mentioned that residents will be notified by AlertVI and the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System will disseminate information of a tsunami threat to radio stations and electronic devices via text or email. Sen. Sarauw stated that this critical project should have already been completed. “Four years passed since the storms, and the Tsunami Warning System isn’t repaired. The Government of the Virgin Islands is responsible for the safety of the people.”

Separately, DPNR Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol shared an update. DPNR oversees the Hurricane Fisheries Disaster Relief Program (HFDRP) and the Virgin Islands Historic Recovery Program (VIHRP). Oriol mentioned that for HFDRP there are 356 applicants of which 274 applications were processed totaling $3,029,285. Additionally, 27 applications are in the queue totaling $404,437 to-date. The program began in June 2020. Similarly, VIHRP launched in November 2020 and currently has 24 applicants for an approximate total of $3.7 million for direct assistance funding. Separately, Oriol indicated that DPNR submitted to FEMA 43 Project Worksheets for the Infrastructure Repair Program Territory-wide. Some of the major projects with an estimated $125,000 in repairs are the Charles Wesley Turnbull Library, the Sprauve Library, and the St. Croix Public Libraries. Lastly, Octalien stated that the FEMA Hazard Mitigation, the FEMA Flood Mitigation, and NOAA Marine Debris Program awarded DPNR funding for disaster recovery projects.                                                                                                       ###

LAWMAKERS UPDATED ON HOUSING CHALLENGES IN THE TERRITORY

St. Thomas- Members of the Committee on Housing, Transportation, and Telecommunications chaired by Sen. Marvin Blyden, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Wednesday, to receive testimony on an update of the V.I. Housing Authority (VIHA) regarding housing challenges and the V.I. Department of Public Works on roads and public transportation. Invited testifiers are officials from the VIHA, the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority (VIFA), the Division of Banks, Insurance, and Financial Regulation of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands, the Methodist Training and Outreach Center, Inc. and the V.I. Department of Public Works (DPW).

Post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria 2017, VIHA in conjunction with the VIFA, are in the process of executing a comprehensive Redevelopment Plan. The plan intends to seek funding for the development of multi-family rental units, demolish former public housing units damaged by the storms, purchase land, and increase the availability of homeownership opportunities to low and middle-income families; according to the written testimony of VIHA Executive Director Robert Graham submitted to the Legislature of the Virgin Islands and read into the record by VIHA Chief Operating Officer Lydia Pelle. There are five phases for the implementation of the Redevelopment Plan slated to construct 3,000 units of which 1500 are new units and 1500 are hardened units. Required funding for the Redevelopment Plan totals $1 billion. Pelle noted that the Redevelopment Plan will address issues of the Housing Voucher Program to include the lack of available units to lease to tenants.

 

Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic, a total of 400 public housing community households endured a COVID-19-related financial crisis and requested rent adjustments. To date, under the eviction moratorium, none of the residents were evicted from their homes. Pelle indicated that ongoing challenges facing VIHA include hurricane-damaged repairs, curb appeal, resident support services, exterior lighting, outdoor space, and maintenance and service requests. Sen. Blyden stated that the hearing was informative, and the goal is to continue to work with VIHA and all housing entities to discuss recommendations and resolve housing issues. “Our focus is to bring solutions and legislation that will mitigate challenges that are affecting the status of housing in the Virgin Islands,” said Sen. Blyden.

Subsequently, the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Daryl Griffith shared an update. Regarding the Emergency Rental Program (ERAP), the Territory was awarded $21,315,497.10 to provide rental and utility assistance for tenants whom finances were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The deadline to expend funds is December 2021. To further reduce the risks of homelessness in the Territory, VIHFA has partnered with the St. Croix Mission Outreach Inc, St. John Community Foundation, the Methodist Training & Outreach Center, and Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands (CCVI) to conduct intakes for ERAP. Separately, CCVI Board Chairman Attorney Richard Bourne-Vanneck indicated that Bethlehem House Shelters on St. Thomas are operable despite structural damage post-storms. However, Bethlehem House Shelters on St. Croix is in the design phase to rebuild. A total of $230,000 was approved in CDBG funding. The deadline to complete construction is 2023.

Meanwhile, to further protect the finances of homeowners in the Territory, Gwendolyn Brady, Director of the Division of Banks, Insurance, and Financial Regulation noted that all the banks complied with federal guidelines. The Pandemic Response Plan and Business Continuity Plan were implemented to protect the financial assets of consumers, hosted online educational courses, and provided safety measures for bank employees. Furthermore, Brady mentioned that although homeowners were offered the option of loan moratoriums/forbearances, only a few utilized those services.

COMMITTEE UPDATED ON YOUTH, SPORTS, PARKS, AND RECREATION

ST. CROIX–The Committee on Youth, Sports, Parks, and Recreation chaired by Senator Samuel Carrión held a public hearing on Wednesday in the Frits E. Lawaetz Conference Room, St. Croix. The hearing’s purpose was to receive testimony from the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation (DSPR).

Freshman Senator Carrión opened his first committee hearing, focusing on youth programs, including work, job training, sports, and recreation while ensuring relevant agencies have plans for this summer, given that so many of our young people have spent the last year at home.

Cindy Richardson, Assistant Commission of DOL on behalf of Commissioner Gary Molloy, said in her status update that the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted their service delivery since the suspension of in-person meetings in April 2020. Nevertheless, the Youth Team continued to offer employment assistance through alternative methods such as telephone and online technology.

The Youth Services Division provides year-round training, employment, and educational opportunities for in and out of school youth ages 14 to 25.  Some of these services include job preparation skills, resume building, job search assistance, and career counseling. The application window for their 2021 Summer Youth Work Experience Program is currently open and will close on April 23, 2021.

This year, she said, they intend to provide a five-week work experience to five hundred and sixty-eight (568) participants ages 16-25 and a four-week virtual career exploration program to two hundred (200) participants ages 14-15. They have tentatively scheduled a Resume Writing workshop on March 19, 2021.

The Asst. Commissioner informed the Committee that DOL had submitted a dual application to VI Housing Authority to complete a portion of the Workforce Development component of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBGG) grant. She added that the application had been accepted and is in the Request for Proposal (RFP) contracting phase. There were nine (9) respondents to the RFP, with an anticipated start date in April 2021.

The focus of Phase One will be on the construction industry to prepare individuals with little or no formal training and provide them with general knowledge to perform an entry-level position in masonry, carpentry, electrical services, and plumbing. Phase Two will focus on those individuals who excel in the first phase and builds a career pathway in construction supervision. Phase Three will create additional employment opportunities beyond construction in Marine, Cybersecurity, Administrative Services, and Hospitality. Phase Four will focus on job retention with intensive job readiness preparation to enter the workforce, including life skills training, self-marking tools, and management relationship.

DOL’s new programs said Richardson would include Work Readiness Program (Virtual), Leadership and Career Development Conference, Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, and Roundtable Discussion and Training Series (Quarterly).

Calvert White, Commissioner of the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation (DSPR) said the Recovery Team has worked extremely hard to get their FEMA Disaster Recovery Project obligated and available for contractors to bid. He added that while they continue to move forward with their facilities’ restoration, DSPR has additional projects to enhance their facilities. They added a newly constructed batting cage at the Alvin McBean Complex with Public Finance Authority capital improvement funding. A private business is currently considering donating a batting cage at the DC Canegata Ballfield.

He added that the Department of Planning and Procurement (DPP) would be accepting bid proposals to resurface, repave and restripe basketball, tennis, and paddleball courts in St. Thomas/St. John district until March 8th and March 12th in the St. Croix district. This project, he said, funded by a Capital Improvement Grant from the Department of Interior, Office of Insular Affairs, will see 20 basketball, 14 tennis and eight paddleball courts refurbished across a total of 21 facilities in the territory.

The Commissioner to the Committee said that the government successfully negotiated with the Renaissance Group regarding land donation at the Renaissance Park, St. Croix, for DSPR and Caribbean Drag Racing Association (CDRA). He pointed out that DSPR has been working very closely with the President of CDRA, Arthur Hector, to rebuild and open the racetrack.

The initial appropriation said Comm. White, by the 33rd Legislature of $500.00, was used to resurface the track. With Governor Bryan’s recent legislation to appropriate $676,000 to complete the drag racing strip, he is hopeful that they will see car racing very soon.

He pointed out that in the 21st Supplemental Executive Order and Proclamation, the Governor provided a list of all sports deemed low risk and allowed for training and conditioning purposes only. Those sports are track and field, cross country, swimming, tennis, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, baseball, softball, and cricket.

The Commissioner said he hopes DOH will allow a few moderate and higher risk sports to resume practices, namely volleyball, baseball, football, and soccer. For now, they have several new programs that they will be launching on St. Croix. “Take Me Fishing, ” which will occur at the Altona Lagoon and Vincent Mason Beach, with a partnership with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources Division of Fish and Wildlife. A group of 15 students, ages 8-12, will learn the correct way to hook bait, cast a line, and secure their catch. Also, there will be a three-day girls softball clinic for ages 13-18, instructed by a scout with Cillege Bureau, LLC. On St. Thomas, he said, they are finalizing the details of Moko Jumbie classes for ages 5-16 and have begun conversation to offer a Batik print class as well.

When asked about the return of territory’s horse racing industry, the Commissioner said he could not discuss legal matters, but he can assure that Governor Bryan is working extremely hard to get both parties to settle. He told Committee members, “the recreation leaders are brainstorming new exciting programs to administer to the public.”

Chairman Carrión expressed several concerns about the mental and physical health of our children. “We have got to get them active and engaged.” He added that while this pandemic has been hard on us, it has been tough on our youth, who cannot have the social, academic, athletic, and other experiences they need for their development.

Senators at Wednesday’s public hearing were Chairman Samuel Carrion, Senators Dwayne DeGraff, Novelle Francis, Jr., Alma Francis-Heyliger, Javan James, Sr., Carla Joseph, Steven Payne, Donna Frett-Gregory, and Genevieve Whitaker.

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BILL NO. 34-0010 ADVANCES, WAPA, V.I. HOUSING FINANCE AUTHORITY & V.I. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH SHARES STATUS OF DISASTER RECOVERY

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure chaired by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Tuesday, and voted and approved a bill to impose a five-year moratorium to prohibit gas station construction. Senators also received testimony on the status of the disaster recovery projects of the utility infrastructure, residential hardening programs, and the facilities of the Virgin Islands Department of Health, post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria 2017. The approved measure will be forwarded to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration.

Lawmakers voted favorably for Bill No. 34-0010- An Act directing the Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to impose a five-year moratorium throughout the Virgin Islands on the issuance of building permits for the construction of gasoline stations. The measure intends to mandate the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to conduct a feasibility study before numerical limitations on the licenses from the Department of Licensing & Consumer Affairs for gasoline stations are imposed and report the findings from the study to the Legislature not less than six months before the numerical limitation goes into effect. Moreover, the bill supports Act No. 8427 to prohibit the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs from issuing a business license for gasoline stations for the next five years upon enactment. Sponsor of the Bill, Sen. Sarauw deemed the bill necessary to close loopholes in the Virgin Islands Code by prohibiting a business owner from obtaining a permit from DPNR to construct a gas station. “In the absence of a Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan, we have to protect the remaining land in the Territory,” Sen. Sarauw said.

The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA) Chief Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer shared an update on disaster recovery. To date, FEMA paid $861,908,154 out of an invoice totaling $991,561,035. The outstanding balance totals $129,652,881 of which $44,692,777 is for the local match covered by HUD CDBG Grants. Some of the challenges are inclusive of accessing the HUD local cost-share match, the reduction of FEMA projects due to anticipated insurance proceeds, and HUD restrictions on projects other than the Harley Expansion Project and Composite Pole Projects; according to Kupfer.  Post-storms, WAPA has thirty-nine disaster recovery projects. There are twelve Territory Mitigation Projects for the installation of waterline extensions and waterline rehabilitations that commenced in 2021 and are slated for completion by 2025. Kupfer further mentioned that there are twenty-seven Territory Mitigation Projects for electricity inclusive of solar and wind generation, composite poles, asset GPS mapping, underground installation on primary transmission and distribution feeders, and gas-insulated switchgear emergency generator installments. The projects began in 2020 and will conclude by 2024. WAPA Governing Board Chair Anthony Thomas noted that the projects are beneficial to expanding water and electrical services as well as improving the overall quality of the infrastructure post-hurricanes.

The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority Executive Director Daryl Griffith informed policymakers on the status of the disaster recovery regarding the residential hardening programs. The Emergency Home Repair VI Program was completed in April 2019. The program conducted temporary repairs in Phase I and permanent roof repairs in Phase II to enable 24,000 residents to continue living in their homes. Moreover, Griffith indicated that the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery award is an estimated $1,917,977,884. The funds will be available to cover “unmet needs activities” in the infrastructure program, fund hazard mitigation activities, and improvements to the electrical grid. To assist residents with rental and utility costs the Territory was awarded $21,315,497.10 for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The deadline to utilize funds is December 2021. Separately, The Virgin Islands Department of Health (DOH) Commissioner Justa Encarnacion shared an update on the disaster recovery. Encarnacion noted that in collaboration with Witt O’Brien, DOH applied for forty-six FEMA projects, and out of that twenty-five projects were obligated for temporary and permanent repairs totaling $13,313,262.84. Additionally, a total of $93,896.59 were obligated for management costs. To date, DOH expended $733,874.46. Furthermore, Encarnacion indicated that some of the challenges with funding include a long process to obtain obligated funds, delays on projects that are close to the deadline due to lead abatements and/or asbestos, and the new requirements of the BBA review add to project delays. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic adversely affected the disaster recovery projects which are designed to have a positive impact on the economy.

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ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT COMMITTEE RECEIVES UPDATES

ST. CROIX—On Tuesday, Chairman Kenneth L. Gittens and members of the Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture, received updates in the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room on the territory’s economic status from the Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority (VIEDA), Bureau of Economic Research (BER), and the Department of Tourism (DOT).
Wayne Biggs, Chief Executive Officer of the VIEDA, gave a status report on the Authority’s accomplishments and activities for Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021. The Authority implemented a voluntary telecommuting platform to remain accessible to the public, small businesses and stakeholders by conducting webinars, client-specific outreach activities and several surveys to provide assistance during the pandemic.
This fiscal year, the VIEDA plans to utilize existing economic development tools and marketing strategies to encourage high-net worth companies and individuals within the pharmaceutical, manufacturing, hospitality and financial service industries, as well as providing technical and financial resources to the small business community.
Commissioner Joseph Boschulte of the DOT testified virtually on their efforts to improve the local tourism industry. The USVI Travel Screening Portal, a crisis communications initiative, “Ensures the safety of the Territory’s residents, as well as that of incoming visitors, by eliminating or limiting the inflow of COVID-19-positive travelers,” said Boschulte. The portal is supported by a 24-hour, in-house customer service center, handling inquiries and concerns from passengers via phone or email. Managed by Marketplace Excellence, the public relations agency has processed over 168,000 travelers to date.
The Department’s plans also include overhauling its Tourism Ambassadors’ website to further connect Virgin Islanders at home and abroad. Digital campaigns and platforms including Pandora, Refinery29 and Condé Nast Traveler have been instrumental during the pandemic, “To keep prospective visitors engaged with the destination, while simultaneously educating the public about COVID-19 and the importance of complying with public health protocols,” said the Commissioner.
Donnie Dorsett, Senior Policy Analyst at the Bureau of Economic Research, presented historical and statistical data on the territory’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the Tourism and Employment sectors. “Historically, Tourism and the export of refined petroleum products contributed largely to the Territory’s GDP,” said Dorsett.
Approximately 51% of businesses were strongly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, 8% of small businesses may be at risk of closing permanently in 3-5 months, and 18% are at risk of closure in the next 6-12 months. The pandemic continues to impact the local travel and transportation, hotels, restaurants, retail, and tourist attractions. The Unemployment Rate has
begun an uptick in both districts,” Dorsett added. In the first quarter of Fiscal year 2021, the average unemployment rate in the territory is 9%, with the following rate in each district:
• St. Thomas/St. John- 10.0%
• St. Croix- 7.9%
“We’ve had a very wholesome and productive dialogue as we all to do our part to continue driving our economy,” said Chairman Gittens. “This pandemic has created a number of opportunities for us as a territory to continue to thrive and diversify our product,” he concluded.
Committee members present during Tuesday’s hearing: Chairman Kenneth Gittens, Vice-Chair Milton Potter, Senators Dwayne DeGraff, Novelle Francis Jr., Donna Frett-Gregory, Javan James Sr., and Alma Francis Heyliger. Non-committee members present during the hearing: Senators Franklin Johnson, Genevieve Whitaker, Kurt Vialet and Samuel Carrion.

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LAWMAKERS UPDATED ON THE STATUS OF THE HEALTHCARE FACILITIES

ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure chaired by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Thursday, and received testimony on the status of the healthcare facilities post-Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Furthermore, senators were updated on the procurement process and expenditures of the COVID-19 funds as it pertains to healthcare.

“There is a need for cohesiveness. The organizational structure lacks continuity and stable leadership at the hospitals. The committee will continue to dive in so that this body can assist as needed,” Sen. Sarauw.

Presently, the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital is temporarily utilizing JFL North, a hardened structure, until the permanent JFL North is completely rebuilt. The deadline to complete the JFL North building is February 2021 and the entire completion is slated for June 2021, according to JFL Interim Chief Executive Officer Dyma Williams, RN, BSN, CPHRM, MJ. However, The Virgin Islands Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien stated that the deadline may not be realistic due to the timeline to construct a structure that secures the medical gas system and a large-scale commercial water heater required for JFL to be compliant with Federal guidelines. Furthermore, Octalien mentioned that FEMA completed the first cost estimate of $250 million for the replacement of JFL in January 2021. This is a significant increase in comparison to the FEMA estimate of $12.5 million in April 2018. The increase is due to the oversight of several key projects such as utility connections and medical gases that were not included in the original estimation.

Williams noted that although JFL North is furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and resources estimated at $29.8 million, essential sewer lines and water pipes are still being installed. The installation of the lines was omitted from the original RFP and Aptim’s scope of work in 2018. Also excluded were external projects such as the ambulance ramp, Concrete Masonry Unit, and the Propane Tank. Despite shortcomings, JFL North has achieved four operating rooms, a laboratory, a radiology department, and a pharmacy. In terms of building a new and permanent JFL hospital, FEMA has not finalized a cost estimation. Regarding the COVID-19 funds, the Office of Management and Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal noted that the Treasury CARES ACT Relief Fund issued JFL a total of $6,163,897.06 in February 2021. There is $60,875 for the purchase of non-contact COVID-19 temperature assessment devices, $6,000,000 for payroll reimbursement, and $103,022.66 for the local reimbursement on project worksheets submitted to FEMA.

 

Similarly, Schneider Regional Medical Center (SRMC) Interim Chief Executive Director Dr. Luis Amaro shared the post-hurricanes update. To date, a total of $6,105,424.64 was expended in operational funds for both temporary and emergency repairs to restore medical services at SRMC. To maintain compliance with healthcare regulatory guidelines, essential repairs were made to the patient care and personnel areas. Amaro further noted that additional repairs were inclusive of the maternal-child health unit, operating room, roofing damages, window system, the labor, and delivery unit, air condition system. FEMA is still in the process of determining the final cost estimate to complete the necessary repairs to SRMC. Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Neal noted that the Treasury CARES ACT Relief Fund awarded SRMC $3,266,711.58 solely for payroll reimbursement. Amaro noted that an estimated $5,439,622.96 was expended to purchase equipment and to make accommodations to prepare for the pandemic. Some of the adjustments are inclusive of engineered mechanical ventilation systems for a negative pressure environment, establishing a Highly Infectious Disease Patient Care Unit for COVID patients, and implementing screening protocols and restricted visitations to SRMC.                                                                                                                                       ###