Aug. 28, 2001 — Short of staff and with the possibility of less federal funding in the future, Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin urged senators on Monday not to cut his department’s budget any further.
Benjamin, testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, said the Labor Department employs about 100 fewer people now than three years ago. That has contributed to low morale and a lack of service for customers, he said.
The department’s overall $12.2 budget request for fiscal year 2002 is almost $1 million less than last year because of dwindling federal funds.
The $12.2 million is a "bare-bones" request consisting of $2.2 million from the General Fund, $2.2 million from the Government Insurance Fund, $490,000 from the Union Arbitration Fund and $7.4 million from the federal government.
"A short-staffed situation exists," Benjamin said. "We cannot do what needs to be done with less than is proposed at this time."
Three years ago there were 259 employees in the Labor Department. Now, due to retirements and resignations, there are 156, Benjamin said. Because of the loss of staff and the cuts in federal funding, the department is becoming increasingly inefficient, he said.
"These shortages have literally crippled our ability to provide viable programs in the community," Benjamin said, adding that because of less federal funding, the department will "likely be required to play a major role in absorbing" the changes.
Rent is a major expense for the department — $700,000 a year. Benjamin said his goal is to have a "one-stop" building constructed to house all Labor functions. A contractor, Hyde Park Perini, has been selected to develop a proposal within the next two years for such a complex on St. Croix, he said.
Meanwhile, in other committee action, senators blasted the Turnbull administration for its FY 2002 budget proposal for the Office of Veterans Affairs. The administration request is $246,906, about $17,000 less than last fiscal year. Fernando Webster, appointed to head the office in early July, said he wasn’t involved in preparing the budget request.
He told senators a more realistic budget for the agency is about $305,000.
Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel, chair of the Senate Labor and Veterans Affairs Committee, harshly criticized the administration’s treatment of veterans in the budget. She said the 10,000-plus veterans in the territory deserve more and noted that Veterans Affairs doesn’t even have an office on St. Thomas.
"It is an absolute disgrace to tell the veterans of the territory that this is all the money … that this is all you are worth to us," Pickard-Samuel said. "Someone needs to be accountable for this insult to veterans."


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