LAWMAKERS APPROVE NOMINEES, REZONINGS, LEASES, AND BILLS IN LEGISLATIVE SESSION 

Published: Jun 24, 2024

ST. THOMAS – The 35th Legislature of the Virgin Islands, led by Senate President Novelle E. Francis, Jr, convened into Regular Legislative Session at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall. The Committee first dissolved into Committee of the Whole to hear a measure to appropriate $3,000,000 to the General Fund of the Treasury of the Government of the Virgin Islands to pay Medicaid program providers, as well as a measure extending the Governor’s Executive Order declaring the State of Energy Emergency in the Virgin Islands. Additionally, Lawmakers approved various nominees, rezonings, leases, and bills.

Lawmakers received testimony on Bill No. 35-0291, An Act appropriating the sum of $3,000,000 from the General Fund of the Treasury of the Government of the Virgin Islands to the Department of Human Services to pay providers and vendors that participate in the Medicaid program and for other related purposes. The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr., by Request of the Governor.

Averil George, Commissioner of the Department of Human Services delivered testimony. The Medicaid program has 21,463 members enrolled and 1,506 providers enrolled in the program to provide services. 440 providers are on island and 1066 are off island. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the territory saw its highest enrollment of members, which reached a peak of 38,489 members in June 2023. The increase was attributed to waivers that were granted by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which mandated that any member found eligible during the pandemic remained enrolled in the program throughout the Public Health Emergency in exchange for a higher Federal Matching Assistance Percentage (FMAP). Since the public health emergency ended on May 11, 2023, enrollment has dropped by 44%.

The Department requires additional funds to support a shortfall in the Medicaid local match for claims to pay past due expenses to providers and to support the continued operation of the Medicaid program. The program has spent $109,221,830 for Medicaid and Children Health Insurance Program (CHIP) claims of which $98,827,870 is the federal share and $10,393,960 is the local match. In Fiscal Year 2024, $9,005,275 was budgeted between Medicaid and CHIP for local match. An additional $710,000 was reallocated within the department to help with the shortfall. The program currently has a local account deficit of $678,248 with an additional $2,430,133.55 in current local match obligations waiting to be processed. Even with a decrease in membership, claim expenditures have not been reduced. In Fiscal Year 2024, claim cycles average about $8.6Million per month, while they averaged $9.3 Million per month in Fiscal Year 2023.

Also considered was Bill No. 35-0292, An Act to renew and extend the Governor’s Executive Order and Proclamation declaring the State of Energy Emergency in the Virgin Islands to avert an energy crisis. The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr., by Request of the Governor.

Kevin Williams, Chief Policy Advisor at the Officer of the Governor delivered testimony. Governor Albert Bryan Jr. declared a State of Energy Emergency on April 22, 2024, by issuing Executive Order 537-2024. The State of Emergency was extended on May 22, 2024, for an additional 30 days through Executive Order 537a-2024. Williams’ testimony reiterated the need to extend the state of Emergency for an additional 90 days through September 19, 2024, to allow for an extensive plan of action.  Williams stated that the importance of maintaining a state of Emergency is to focus on the urgency on decision making based on factors such as current and future cash flow, current and future power generation, and the movement and tracking of funds to support contractual agreements. $10,282,677.64 has been processed/paid to WAPA from the Budget Stabilization Fund. The funds have been used to offset balances that were owed as of April 2024 which included about $6.1 Million to the Waste Management Authority, about $2.4 million to the Schneider Regional Medical Center, and about $1.58 million to the Juan F. Luis Hospital.

All outstanding bills owed by the Central Government, SRMC, JFLH and WMA have been paid. Going forward, these semi-autonomous entities will be included in the single payer fund to ensure they remain current in their bills.  Williams said WAPA paid $2.3 million to Aggreko for leased generators. However, WAPA has accumulated outstanding amounts totaling $2.1 Million. Payments of $4 Million to Seven Seas for water production were also made. It is expected that the Government will close on VITOL infrastructure before the end of July 2024, which will allow the repayment of the $45 Million line of Credit.  LPG transportation rates have been reduced from 73 cents to 59 cents, saving the authority approximately $900,000 on shipments of propane.  The GVI and WAPA resolved all outstanding issues with Wartsila and signed a contract to restart work.  This project is expected to bring 36MW of power with 9MW of battery capacity. This is expected to reduce WAPA monthly expenses by $2.5 million monthly.  

The authority is experiencing severe challenges. It currently costs the authority approximately 55 cents per kilowatt hour to generate power, however it can only charge customers 41 cents per kilowatt hour. This is a direct impact of about $5 Million monthly. It underbills customers due to the failing Automated Meter Reading Infrastructure. Many generating units on St. Thomas should have already been replaced and are unreliable. There is only one undersea cable between St. Thomas and St. John with the other two lines not being in service. Williams stated that while all the problems could not be resolved in 30 or 60 days, the additional time is needed to work through issues at the authority.  He stated that WAPA was “out of surgery,” but it remained in intensive care and requires round the clock attention.

Testimony was read into the record from Andrew Smith, Executive Director and Chief Executive Office of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority stated that WAPA faced a significant structural and financial deficit. The utility last changed its electric rate in early 2021, with rates holding steady since that time. According to Smith’s testimony, utility rates in the Caribbean have increased approximately 50%, but the Virgin Islands has been shielded from the increases, which has amounted to about $200 million in excess fuel costs that were not passed on to customers. The costs were partially offset by a grant of $77 million from the American Rescue Plan Assistance or ARPA funds. Smith urged the body to support the authority, stating that it needed its support to construct a sustainable and reliable plan for infrastructure in the community. He stated that the utility could not survive without external funding to close the gap between revenue and costs.

After receiving testimony on the bills, the Legislature of the Virgin Islands then returned to Legislative Session. Lawmakers overrode the Governor’s veto of Bill No. 35-0115, An Act repealing title 24 Virgin Islands Code chapter 17, subchapter II, “Limited Use of Criminal Records in Hiring Practices,” and enacting in its place “The Fair Chance for Employment Act” relative to criminal record checks in the employment application process; and amending title 3 Virgin Islands Code, chapter 25, subchapter I, section 452 requiring the Director of Personnel to develop and implement fair chance hiring policies; and for other related purposes. The measure was sponsored by Senators Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Alma Francis Heyliger, and Angel L. Bolques, Jr., and co-sponsored by Senator Marise C. James.

An attempt to override the Governor’s veto of Bill No. 35-0268, An act amending title 23, Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 10, subchapter I relating to a declaration of a state of emergency by the Governor and other related issues failed. The measure was sponsored by Senator Alma Francis Heyliger and co-sponsored by Senator Franklin D. Johnson. The nominations of Lindel A. Williams to the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority Board of Directors – St. Croix and Conn J. Davis II to the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority Board of Directors – St. Thomas were approved.

The following rezonings were approved:

  • Bill No. 35-0137, An Act granting a use variance for Parcel No. 9-3 Estate Glucksberg No. 22 Cruz Bay Quarter, St. John, Virgin Islands to allow the applicant to lease individual bedrooms under the category “Lodging/Rooming house”.
  • Bill No. 35-0241, An Act granting a zoning use variance for Lot No. 3 Second Street, Subdivision of Estate Thomas, Kings Quarter, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, to allow for a restaurant and a fruit bar.
  • Bill No. 35-0244, An Act amending Official Zoning Map No. SCZ-10 to rezone Plots No. 126A, 126B, 126C, 126CA, 127E Combined, and 212 Estate Two Brothers, Smithfield and Hesselberg, West End Quarter, St. Croix, Virgin Islands, from W-1 (Waterfront Pleasure) to R-3 (Residential-Medium Density).
  • Bill No. 35-0256, An Act amending Official Zoning Map No. SJZ-1, St. John, Virgin Islands, to allow for the rezoning of Parcel No. 6-A Estate Susannaberg, No. 17A Cruz Bay Quarter, St. John from R-2 (Residential-Low Density-One and Two Family) to P (Public).
  • Bill No. 35-0260, An Act amending Official Zoning Map No. SCZ-12 for the island of St. Croix, Virgin Islands rezoning Plot No. 6, Parcel 6 of Estate Clifton Hill, Kings Quarter, St. Croix from R-2 (Residential-Low Density-One and Two Family) to B-3 (Business Scattered).

All the rezonings were sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr., by Request of the Governor.

The following leases were approved:

  • Bill No. 35-0263, An Act approving the lease agreement between the Government of the Virgin Islands and Sanchez Ventures, LLC for Parcel No.1 Estate Contant, No. 7B Southside Quarter, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; Parcels No. 194-2 and 194-2A Estate Altona and Welgunst, Crown Prince Quarter, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; and Parcels No. 10 and 11A Submarine Base, No. 6 Southside Quarter, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr. by request of the Governor.
  • Bill No. 35-0264, An Act approving the lease agreement between the Government of the Virgin Islands and Verdell Turnbull d/b/a Turnbull Welding Service for Parcel No. 99A-1 Submarine Base, No. 6 Southside Quarter, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr. by request of the Governor.
  • Bill No. 35-0265, An Act approving the lease agreement between the Government of the Virgin Islands, acting through its Department of Property and Procurement, and St. Thomas Properties, LLC for Consolidated Parcel No. 17-3A Estate Nisky, No. 6 Southside Quarter, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr. by request of the Governor.
  • Bill No. 35-0261, An Act approving the lease agreement between the Government of the Virgin Islands and Dale Browne and Yvette Browne d/b/a Sejah Farm of the Virgin Islands for Plot No. 9-P Estate VICORP Lands, Prince Quarter, St. Croix, Virgin Islands. The measure was sponsored by Senators Novelle E. Francis, Jr., and Marvin A. Blyden by Request of the Governor
  • Bill No. 35-0255, An Act approving the multi-year lease agreement between the Government of the Virgin Islands, acting through its Commissioner of the Department of Property and Procurement and Rumina Construction, LLC, for Parcel No. 92 A (Revised) Submarine Base, No. 6 Southside Quarter, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, to operate an equipment and material storage depot yard, construction company office, and other related purposes. The measure was sponsored by Senators Novelle E. Francis, Jr., and Marvin A. Blyden by Request of the Governor.

The following bills were approved:

  • Bill No. 35-0030, An Act honoring and commending Vaughn Benjamin posthumously for his contributions to reggae music in the Virgin Islands and the global communities; appropriating $45,000 to the Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation for the design and construction of the “Vaughn Benjamin Monument” and naming the waterfront park west of the Marley Homes “The Vaughn ‘Akae Beka’ Memorial Park”. The measure was sponsored by Senators Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Carla J. Joseph, and Samuel Carriόn.
  • Bill No. 35-0117, An Act amending title 27 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 15, sections 421a and 422 relating to the qualifications, term limits, and duties of the members of the Real Estate Commission. The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr.
  • Bill No. 35-0193, An Act amending title 27 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 15, sections 421a and 422 relating to the qualifications, term limits, and duties of the members of the Real Estate Commission. The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr. and co-sponsored by Senator Marise C. James.
  • Bill No. 35-0215, An Act amending title 23 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 5, section 457, subsection (a), paragraph (3), relating to the contents of a firearm license to change the statement in the license increasing the term of the license from three years to five years. The measure was sponsored by Senator Milton E. Potter.
  • Bill No. 35-0236, An Act amending title 3 Virgin Islands Code adding a new Chapter 33A to enact the “21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (IDEA)” to improve governmental agency digital services, and for other purposes. The measure was sponsored by Senators Samuel Carrión, and Carla J. Joseph
  • Bill No. 35-0292, An Act to renew and extend the Governor’s Executive Order and Proclamation declaring the State of Energy Emergency in the Virgin Islands to avert an energy crisis. The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr., by Request of the Governor.
  • Bill No. 35-0078, An Act requiring the Commissioner of the Department of Tourism to conduct a survey to assist in the establishment of an official dish and dessert of the Virgin Islands. The measure was sponsored by Senators Angel L. Bolques, Jr., and Marvin A. Blyden.
  • Bill No. 35-0230, An Act repealing section 11 of Act No. 6570, as amended, and amending title 20 Virgin Islands Code related to the inspection and licensing of automobiles for hire. The measure was sponsored by Senators Dwayne M. Degraff and Marvin A. Blyden.
  • Bill No. 35-0293, An act requiring the Government of the Virgin Islands to submit a Fiscal Year 2024 Budget Reduction Plan to align with current fiscal year revenues and expenditures. The measure was sponsored by Senator Donna A. Frett-Gregory.
  • Bill No. 35-0291, An Act appropriating the sum of $3,000,000 from the General Fund of the Treasury of the Government of the Virgin Islands to the Department of Human Services to pay providers and vendors that participate in the Medicaid program and for other related purposes (non-germane amendments). The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis, Jr., by Request of the Governor.

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

The Division of Public Affairs is committed to providing the community with accurate information on legislative proceedings and other events at the Legislature of the Virgin Islands. Visit legvi.org.

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