Published: Jul 19, 2023

ST. THOMAS – Members of the 35th Legislature of the Virgin Islands’ Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance, led by Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory, convened a meeting at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall regarding the proposed Fiscal Year 2024 Executive Budget for the Government of the Virgin Islands. Lawmakers received testimony concerning the budgets of the Judiciary of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Virgin Islands Office of the Inspector General, and the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority.

In block one, the Honorable Rhys S. Hodge, Chief Justice of the US Virgin Islands delivered testimony. Per Hodge’s testimony, the Judicial Branch’s budget is $52,621,081 for fiscal year 2024. Of this amount, $49,571,061 will fund the regular operations of the Judicial Branch. $3,050,020 has been earmarked to fund two important additions, the startup costs for the Office of Conflict Counsel, as well as costs associated with the expansion of the Supreme Court from three justices to five justices. A separate appropriation of $131,151 has been requested to the Judicial Council, which partially funds the staffing of the District Court law libraries, which remain open to the public and the Virgin Islands Bar.

Of the $49,571,061 needed to fund regular operations of the Judicial Branch, $24,817,244 has been budgeted for salaries and $10,952,546 for fringe benefits; $4,293,624 for other services and charges; $4,209,975 for capital expenditures; $2,348,212 for utilities; and $707,000 for supplies. The request includes salary and fringe benefits requests to fund 308 filled positions, with 129 vacancies, pro-rated at 50%, as well as a 5% salary increase for regular employees and a salary increase for judicial officers to keep the salary of a Superior Court judge on par with the salary of a Superior Court judge on par with the salary of a magistrate judge of the Federal District Court. The Fiscal Year 2024 budget appropriation is $6,000,000 greater than the request for Fiscal Year 2023 of $43,104,318, and $9,000,000 greater than the actual Fiscal Year 2023 appropriation of $40,500,000.

Hodge reminded the body that the Judicial Branch has experienced significant employee turnover in recent years, stating that it has gotten worse since Fiscal Year 2022. During the first nine months of Fiscal Year 2022, there were thirty-nine separations. This includes seventeen retirements, which has brought the total number of retirements over the last five years to fifty-nine, which is about 20% of its workforce excluding vacancies. Additionally, Hodge stated that it is exceedingly difficult to fill the vacancies created by the retirement of very experienced retired workers. One of the most difficult vacancies for the court to fill is that of the court reporter, who will record verbatim what occurred during a hearing. If a court reporter is not present, the hearing will not occur.

The branch has also been tasked with performing repairs to damaged facilities. It took almost four years to repair the roof at the Alexander A. Farrelly Justice Center on St. Thomas. Mold remediation was also being completed. A gradual transformation of the Farrelly Justice Center is underway, with various repairs and renovations being undertaken, including technology repairs, as well as upgrades to restroom facilities. The Judicial Branch also continues to battle with failing structures in both St. Thomas and St. John.

In block two, Delia Thomas, the Virgin Islands Inspector General designee delivered testimony. The Office of the Virgin Islands Inspector General has seventeen filled positions. There are two vacancies. These positions are budgeted at half their annual salaries. The proposed 2024 budget recommendation for the office is $2,470,535. Actual expenditures from Fiscal Year 2023 through July 7, 2023, totaled $1,508,231. Personnel and related services account for $2,044,273, or 83% of the budget request. This is inclusive of $1,467,926 for personnel services, and $576,347 for fringe benefits. Supplies account for $55,000, or 2% of the budget. Other services is estimated at $306,260, or 12.4% of the budget request. Utility services are estimated at $40,000. Capital outlays is $25,000, or 1% of the budget request. Furthermore, Thomas stated that the office did not have the mandate to fully serve the government, stating that certain government instrumentalities had not been reached in over fifteen years.

Finally, In block three, Dayna M. Clendinen, the Interim Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority delivered testimony. The proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget for the Authority is $27,485,509. This includes $2 Million from the General Fund, with supplemental revenues anticipated from stamp tax collections, land and home sales, commercial leases, mortgages, and various federal reimbursements. In Fiscal Year 2023, the Authority received $5 Million in stamp tax revenues, and expects to receive another $5 Million in FY 2023. The law provides for VIHFA to use 12 percent of that amount for administrative costs, which amounts to approximately $600,000. Additionally, $1.4 million in land and home sales; eighteen commercial leases at $112,048 per annum; mortgages of $350,000 per annum; and various reimbursements from CDBG, CDBG-DR, MIT, Electrical Grid, CDBG-CV, ESG, ESG-CV, and HOME of a little over $23.1 million is anticipated.

Projected expenditures for Personnel Services are about $15 million, with $10,655,718 for salaries, and fringe benefits of about $4.7 million, for an increase of $1.2 million over the FY 2023 budget. The budget includes $110,000 for supplies; $847,981 for rent; and $7,868,223 for professional services to include consultants, construction management, and website management for all programs. Also included are system upgrades of $751,078; along with $295,000 for utilities, and other services and charges of $635,888. Over the past 15 years, VIHFA’s annual appropriation from the General Fund is $2 million, which is used solely for salaries and fringe benefits. Given the rising costs of health insurance premiums and employer retirement contributions from 20.5% to 23.5%, the $2 million today sustains salaries and fringe benefits for twenty-one employees, which represents less than 50% of personnel costs and fringe benefits for all filled positions that are not federally reimbursed.

The Housing Finance Authority has a total of 122 employees, seventy-two are in the St. Thomas-St. John District and fifty are in the St. Croix District. There are currently thirty-one vacancies. Of these vacancies, twenty-five positions at a cost of $1.5 million are federally reimbursed. Six positions are subsidized by the general fund at a cost of $523,058. All employees are classified as exempt. During this calendar year, six federal internal promotions, fourteen new hires, and eight separations were processed. Of the eight separations, there were two retirements and six resignations. This is significantly lower than the twenty-three separations that were processed at this same time last year.

Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Marvin A. Blyden, Diane T. Capehart, Samuel Carrión, Dwayne M. Degraff, Ray Fonseca, Kenneth L. Gittens, Marise C. James, Javan E. James, Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Milton E. Potter.

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