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 of the United States. Lawmakers received testimony concerning the budgets of the Virgin Islands Department of Public Works and the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority.
In block one, Derek Gabriel, the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Public Works delivered testimony. The proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget totals $26,029,852 from the General Fund. Personnel Services of $7,689,153, Fringe Benefits of $3,867,222, Supplies of $1,170,500, Other services of $10,406,978, Utilities of $896,000, and Capital outlay of $2,000,000. The department has 220 employees. 107 employees are in the St. Croix District. 113 employees are in the St. Thomas – St John District. There are 146 classified employees. Sixty-eight classified employees are in St. Croix. Seventy-eight classified employees are in the St. Thomas- St. John District. There are seventy-five exempt employees. Thirty-nine exempt employees are in St. Croix. Thirty-four employees are in the St. Thomas – St. John District. One employee is nonunionized. There are twenty-seven vacancies.
Supplies of $1,170,500 have been broken down into office supplies of $2,000, operating supplies of $783,500, minor equipment of $65,000, clothing of $40,000, food and catering of $14,000 and vehicle supplies of $266,000. Other services of $10,406,978 includes repairs and maintenance of $4,275,703, rental machines/equipment of $53,000, training of $60,000, communication of $208,000, advertising and promotion of $15,000, security services of $15,700, transportation (not travel) of $12,000, travel of $50,000, purchase of bulk tickets of $48,000, VITRAN & ferry subsidies of $5,300,000, abandoned vehicles (STT, STJ, STX) of $225,000, website maintenance of $10,000, drug & alcohol testing contract of $ 27,000, and janitorial services (STT & STX) of $107,575. Utilities are broken down into $710,000 for electricity, and $186,000 for water. Capital outlay of $2,000,000 is broken down into $400,000 for heavy equipment and vehicles and $1,600,000 for the Western Cemetery Wall.
The department currently has 190 active projects. 140 of them are user agency projects, and fifty of them are DPW projects. Sixty-three percent of the projects are FEMA funded. In Fiscal Year 2023, VITRAN collected $202,645.25 in revenue. $65,866 came from St. Croix, $17,287 from St. John, and $119,492.25 from St. Thomas. 180,163 was collected from parking lots. $49,922.00 was collected from St. Croix and $130,241 from St. Thomas. The department plans to improve the ferry transportation program, with securing new ferry vessels for the St. Thomas – St. John ferry route. The department also plans to apply for major Department of Transportation Grant to buy two new ferry vessels for the St. Croix- St Thomas Route. Plans to rehabilitate bus shelters are underway, as well as procuring electric vehicles. The VITRAN transit plan update is expected to begin in October 2023. The plan is expected to examine current bus routes and determine opportunities to increase service and improve service. Parking lot projects are also underway in both districts. These projects will include the placement of new underground electrical, camera, and communication conduits, installation of new parking equipment, generators, and resurfacing.
Chairperson Donna A Frett-Gregory voiced major concern over abandoned vehicles in the territory. Majority Leader Kenneth L. Gittens asked Commissioner Gabriel to consider collaborating with the Virgin Islands Police Department to have a government impound lot for abandoned vehicles.
In block two, Roger Merritt, Jr., the Executive Director of the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority delivered testimony. The recommended appropriation for the department is approximately $35 Million. However, Merritt reminded the body that the actual cost for the authority to provide its services was well over $50 Million. The authority has looked for ways to cut costs. The authority spends about $3.6 million for garbage collection for 13,225 homes on St. Croix. In a recent procurement for these services, all contractors bid the same exact rate, which would have increased the annual cost to $4.7 million. This forced the authority to purchase four garbage trucks at $1.2 Million to provide the services because the contractor’s monthly costs of $397,000 equated to more than buying a brand-new rear loader truck ($300,000) each month. The hiring of additional garbage truck drivers and sanitation technicians at a cost of $518,000 annually along with new trucks is expected to save the authority over $4 Million annually. The Waste Management Authority has 159 employees. Eighty-nine are in the St. Thomas- St. John District and seventy are in the St. Croix District. Thirty-two employees were hired within Fiscal Year 2023, and two were internally promoted. There are fifty-four vacancies.
The authority’s facilities collect, treat and discharge four million gallons of wastewater every day. St. Croix accounts for 1.6 million gallons per day, St. Thomas accounts for 2.1 million gallons per day and St. John accounts for $130,000 gallons per day. Wastewater infrastructure in St. Croix accounts of approximately 120 miles of sewer lines; fifteen pump stations, 1800 utility access holes and one wastewater treatment plant. For the district of St. Thomas/St. John, there are approximately three hundred miles of sewer lines; fifteen pump stations, 2500 utility access holes and seven wastewater treatment plants.
Vendor payments continue to be a major issue for the authority. It owes approximately $17 Million to local contractors who helped the authority provide solid waste and wastewater collection, treatment, and disposal service after the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well as during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The passage of Act 8647 allocated $15 Million to the authority for outstanding vendor payments. The Authority has received $11 Million of those funds and immediately paid contractors. When the remaining $4 Million from Act 8647 is released, the total amount owed will decrease to $13 Million. The authority also owes WAPA over $4 Million from November 2020 to the current. The authority is also challenged with aging facilities and infrastructure, with the wastewater infrastructure being more than 50 years old, outliving its useful life.
Chair Donna A. Frett Gregory once again implored the Waste Management Authority to explore all ways to reduce costs, citing that the authority had been given extra funding over the years, outside of their budget requests. She also asked that the authority explore ways of revenue generation, stating that the US Virgin Islands was the only place where people did not pay for waste collection.
Additionally, a motion was entertained to subpoena the Waste Management Authority for the financial amount of all settlement agreements or court ordered payments because of litigations paid in 2020, 2021, 2022, and 2023, to date, and the name of the person, persons, or entity paid to be received by noon on August 18, 2023. The motion was successful.
Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Marvin A. Blyden, Diane T. Capehart, Samuel Carrión, Dwayne M. Degraff, Ray Fonseca, Kenneth L. Gittens, Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Milton E. Potter.