July 27, 2004 The Senate Finance Committee heard an unusually modest plea Monday afternoon in its final week of budget hearings.
"I wish I could come before you with a plan to do something big or special that we envision for next year," said Agriculture Commissioner Lawrence Lewis, "but our budget does not afford us this possibility." Like many other departments, Lewis said, his department has been stumbling because of under staffing and lack of training for personnel.
Lewis said the abattoir on St. Croix was almost closed recently by the U. S. Department of Agriculture because of an infraction of rules.
"The abattoir was clean and sanitary," Lewis said, "but there are rules, regulations and protocols which must be regularly followed, and we were not following them." He said to be able to follow these standards, "staff must be trained and made to understand the importance of these rules. In our efforts to manage with limited funds, training was often curtailed."
While following USDA guidelines, workers were not following a required written protocol, Lewis said.
On another note, the department's tropical bont tick surveillance and reporting program is continuing, Lewis said the department is now poised to execute a program "aimed at the eradication of this disease" It will be funded by a $289,787 federal grant from the USDA.
For more than 170 years, the tropical bont tick (Amblyomma variegatum) has been island hopping in the Caribbean, bringing severe economic losses for livestock producers wherever it goes. It prefers to feed on domestic cattle, but will also infest sheep, goats, horses and dogs. In some areas, the tick can infest humans, causing intense skin irritation and inflammation, according to the Web site of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Lewis said the eradication of the tick is "critically important to the export of Senepol cattle, and V. I. white-hair sheep. We aim to treat all farm animals and horses that are host to the pest," he said. Temporary employees will be hired for the program. The cattle and sheep are two important St. Croix exports.
Lewis also made a point of notifying owners that if his department encounters any animals "too wild to be managed, they will be shot." He said, "We will do this with the knowledge of the V. I. Police Department and the owner, where possible."
The proposed Agriculture Department fiscal year 2005 budget is $2.58 million, which is $515,580 less than fiscal 2004, a 16.64 percent decrease. It is barely enough to get by, Lewis said and added, "You would understand, therefore, why we have been making adjustments, combining duties and responsibilities."
Lewis said the Office of Management and Budget cut five positions in the department. He has written to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull about one of them – the Agriculture Development assistant director. "That position represents the placement of the only academically trained agriculturist in the St. Thomas office," he said.
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