Conrad Francois Jr., executive director of the V.I. Housing Authority, told the Senate Finance Committee Monday that some of the most defenseless members of society are suffering under the government's current fiscal policies.
As budget hearings continued, representatives of the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation, the Magens Bay Authority, the V.I. Horse Racing Commission and the V.I. Carnival Committee took their turns defending their FY 2000 budgets.
While some agencies, like the Carnival Committee, have been slated for almost total budget cuts in the coming year, others like the V.I. Housing Authority say they have yet to receive their government allotments for FY 1999, which ends Sept. 30.
Francois said most of his operating funds come from the federal government, allowing him to proceed with hurricane-mitigation projects at selected housing communities.
But the Housing Authority also has responsibility for management of the territory's homes for the aged. The missing local funds, said Francois, are earmarked for care of the aged and shut-ins, some living in public housing.
"As of this date we have not received one dollar of our appropriation for our current fiscal year," he said. "We have made several inquiries with the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Finance and have received no satisfactory response. It is unconscionable in a community whose only low-income housing is 100 percent federally subsidized to say that it cannot find the means to take care of its elderly."
Still, the Housing Authority director pledged to adhere to Government House's dictate for budget cuts, announcing plans to cut back on nursing shifts at senior homes among other cost-savings measures.
Francois also said funds he requests from the V.I. government pay for programs and services not subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The V.I. Housing Authority is currently operating with a $3.2 million deficit, which Francois said means it cannot meet financial obligations; among them payments to the V.I. Water and Power Authority.
Committee members raised the prospect of consolidation of a number of housing and housing-related agencies as a contribution toward government budget cuts.
Several lawmakers expressed displeasure over Francois' reports of inadequate funding and treatment of public housing's vulnerable tenants.
"I believe in two things – a society is judged by how we treat our elderly and how we treat our young, and we are failing miserably on both ends," said Sen. Gregory Bennerson.
As for Carnival, the Finance Committee finds itself in the business of making unpopular decisions. Committee members have yet to decide how to impose budget cuts for the V.I. Carnival celebrations on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John.
Officials of the Turnbull administration have recommended elimination of government subsidies for the annual cultural celebrations. Officials of the Carnival Committee discussed the prospect earlier this year.
The head of the committee, Kenneth Blake, warned lawmakers that thankless attitudes and misplaced priorities might produce an unexpected loss of revenues brought in by this lavish annual event.
Blake, expressing frustration, said the V.I. community has never fully appreciated the contributions of the fete to the local economy nor acknowledged the hard work of a core of volunteers who would be paid to the tune of $1.4 million if they were organizing carnivals on other islands.
"The members of the Carnival Committee of all three festivals are volunteers. Why can't we understand that?" asked Blake. "People volunteer their time and still the government expects more from the Carnival Committee.
"All these three committees need to do is go home. There would be no festival. The government would be out millions of dollars, and I think it's coming to that point where members are getting annoyed over the constant bickering, the constant bashing."
Blake pointed to figures published by the Bureau of Internal Revenue showing peaks in revenue during the months when V.I. Carnival, the St. John Fourth of July Festival and the Crucian Christmas Celebration take place.
Yet other government officials, such as acting Tourism Commissioner Michael Bornn, have said that Carnival has grown over the years to an entertainment product that is ready and should be financially self-sufficient.
The FY 2000 budget hearings are now at the start of their fourth week, having endured three false starts, rescheduled hearings to accommodate a public demonstration and one agency that failed to appear at its scheduled time.
Monday evening members of the V.I. Hospitality Institute were summoned before the committee. Committee chair Lorraine Berry ordered them to appear under subpoena after they failed to appear on Sept. 3.
As she plods towards completion of her appointed task of approving the governor's spending plan, Berry drove her team of lawmakers through the afternoon session, hearing from Attorney General Iver Stridiron and the V.I. Department of Justice.
The AG told the committee the plan to return some 70 prisoners from stateside jails is still on schedule for later this year.
Those transfers were made in 1997 as part of a court-ordered mandate to relieve overcrowding at the St. Thomas Bureau of Correction and the Golden Grove Correctional Facility on St. Croix.
Stridiron also said that hiring outside attorneys on a per-case basis was improving the flow of casework through the department and costing less than hiring assistant attorneys general.
Sen. Roosevelt David took Stridiron to task on the touchy subject of overtime, noting that at the V.I. Bureau of Corrections, which operates under Stridiron's direction, overtime costs were reaching astronomical proportions.
Stridiron responded that overtime costs for Corrections personnel had actually dropped. Citing a report, he said expenditures were down from a FY 1996 high of $1.5 million to $509,000 for FY '99 through May.
"This amount is still not acceptable to the department and we will improve on it during Fiscal Year 2000. When we return to this table and these chambers, you should be able to pin me to the curb on whether we have been able to reduce the overtime below that $509,000, and we should."
Hearings continue Tuesday, with the Virgin Islands Police Department, Narcotics Strike Force, Law Enforcement Planning Commission, Government Employees Retirement System and the office of the Lieutenant Governor scheduled to present their FY 2000 budgets.


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