April 1, 2003 -The Senate chambers were filled with farmers, some bearing fresh produce, on Tuesday as the Finance Committee approved 10 government leases of agricultural land.
The committee also approved three federal grant applications.
The 20-year lease agreements were between the Property and Procurement Department on behalf of the Agriculture Department and individual farmers. All had received preliminary approval by the Senate's legal counsel and Post Audit Division.
Donastorg said some of the farmers had been "waiting for decades for their leases to be approved." He said he made addressing the matter an priority upon taking over as Finance chair.
"For years this government has done nothing to foster agriculture … and the lack of action on these leases has hampered the efforts of local farmers," he said. "There has been a severe lack of support."
Having the leases in hand, the farmers now will be eligible for farming loan and grant programs, Donastorg pointed out. He said the committee will reconvene on April 11 on St. Croix to approve similar leases to St. Croix farmers.
Alphonso Wade III and several other farmers presented a video showing the lands they farm. Explaining what they plan to do, Wade said: "Agriculture is important. What's the first thing you do every day? You wake up and want something to eat."
Wade said he has been cultivating the property he farms by hand, but that once he has a signed contract he will be able to obtain insurance and buy the necessary machinery. He said he will grow soursop, thyme, tea bush, sugar apples, collard greens and cucumbers.
The leases approved are for Alphonso and Philirine Wade III; Alphonso Williams and Zonia David; Leslie Todman; John Ludvig; Lionel Williams and Carol Stagger; Keith "Keibo" Brown and Earl Forbes; Lucien and Benita Samuel; Gerald Hodge and Eustace James; Gale Marshall and James Hodge Richards; Ethelbert Williams and Gladstone Hazel; and Mabeline "Rashida" Durant.
The leases now go to the full Senate. If approved, they then will go to Government House for the governor's final approval.
Grants seek federal funding
One of the grant applications approved is seeking $100,000 for the Office of the Adjutant General/V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency for a communication room facility.
The other two are for the Planning and Natural Resources Department — one seeking $97,869 from the Historic Preservation Fund for V.I. Historic Preservation Office programs and staffing, and the other seeking $275,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency for wetlands protection.
VITEMA's director, Harold Baker, told the committee that it is imperative "that first responders and government in the islands and the federal government are able to maintain secure and sensitive communications at all times."
According to Baker, "VITEMA has been searching for an appropriate facility to relocate the Territorial Emergency Operations Center." He said a "secure and suitable facility" has been identified — a property in Sub Base on St. Thomas that is owned by the V.I. National Guard.
The site is that of the former Gramboko Hotel. The building will be partially demolished and rebuilt, Baker said.
Responding to questions from Donastorg, Baker said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will provide equipment for a staff of 12 in the communication office.
Sen. Louis Hill asked Baker about setting up a similar facility on St. Croix, since in the case of an emergency the governor could be on that island. Baker said his mandate from FEMA right now is just to build the one on St. Thomas.
Myron D. Jackson, Historic Preservation Office director, told the committee that the grant sought by his office would enable it to "document and provide some level of funding and advocacy on behalf of our fragile and irreplaceable cultural resources." It also, he said, would fund the salaries of the office's basic professional staff — the director, archaeologist, historic preservation planner and administrative assistant.
Hollis Griffith, director of DPNR's Environmental Protection Division, said the wetlands grant is being sought to carry out the second phase of a wetlands monitoring program. He said this will lead to adoption of an ambient wetland monitoring and assessment program. And this, he said, will increase the territory's capacity to determine the causes, effects and extent of pollution to wetland resources, and to develop strategies to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution.
Griffith said the grant wouldn't be possible without the V.I. Clean Water Act which was passed by the 23rd Legislature under Donastorg's sponsorship.
Committee members present were Sens. Donastorg, Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell. Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Roosevelt David were absent.
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