Feb. 21, 2006 — A Senate Finance Committee meeting stretched late into the night Tuesday, as senators voted to approve a $57.2 million supplemental budget bill sent to the Legislature two weeks ago by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
After taking a half-hour recess at 10 p.m., senators also approved two amendments appropriating additional funds for projects not included in the original bill. Senators approved the amendments without receiving testimony from Turnbull's financial team, which had left the Senate's chambers during the recess. Representatives from the team, including Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull and Office of Management and Budget Director Ira Mills, had fielded questions about the supplemental budget all day and were excused before senators could take a vote on the bill.
Since the testifiers had also discussed the bill at a Finance Committee meeting last week, there were only a few new issues presented during Tuesday's hearing (See "Finance Committee Delays Vote on Supplemental Budget Bill" and "Senators Hesitant to Grant Education's Request for More Money").
However, senators did ask why a $3 million supplemental budget request recently sent in by the Waste Management Authority was not included in the budget bill (See "Waste Management Authority Feeling Weight of Funding Cuts").
Nathan Simmonds, head of Turnbull's financial team, said that cuts were made in the supplemental budget because projected revenue figures for FY 2006 were lower than anticipated. "Because of this, we had to re-prioritize," Simmonds said. "The WMA has some funding to work with right now, but since they've indicated that they will be needing additional money for operations during this fiscal year, we will be working to find a funding source for them."
Simmonds added that a $10 million supplemental budget request by Education would be reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Education once the third-party fiduciary agreement is in place. "Once those funds come back to the territory, we will be asking the Legislature to re-appropriate the money to take care of some of the needs we couldn't address in this bill," he said. "That includes the money requested by the WMA and additional money for salary increases for government employees."
Sen. Liston Davis also asked Mills whether some of the funds included in the supplemental budget could be redirected to the Police Department. "Our residents are being terrorized by all sorts of crimes and fear for their survival," Davis said. "When I asked the Police Department what they're doing to address some of these problems, they said they are being hindered by a shortage of funding and manpower."
Mills said the financial team has "already massaged" the supplemental budget down from $150 million – the initial amount requested by various departments and agencies – to $57.2 million. "We are already taking care of the priorities within our priorities," Mills said.
Labor Commissioner Cecil R. Benjamin also testified on behalf of the department's $1.5 million supplemental budget request, which would go toward funding workmen's compensation claims and correcting various health and safety violations within governmental departments and agencies. Benjamin could not give senators a specific list of violations which need to be corrected, however.
Senators also approved the ratification of a contract for off-island services rendered by the Pine Residential Treatment Center for Children, located in Virginia, on behalf of the local Education Department. According to Education Commissioner Noreen Michael, the sum of $139,127 is owed to the center for special education services provided to Kiko Joseph, a V.I. student.
Attorney Lynn Millin, legal counsel for Property and Procurement, said the contract wasn't signed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull by the time the services were rendered. She said the contract had to be approved by the Legislature in order for the center to be paid.
Since Joseph checked into the center on Aug. 1, 2003, senators wondered why it took two years for the matter to come before the Legislature. Millin said Education had tried to obtain a "contract for services rendered" through Property and Procurement but was told by the Justice Department that such a contract would be illegal. "That's why we have a gap between when the contract was finally finished in 2004, and now," she said. "We had to revise the contract and send it to the proper government agencies for review. Since the governor did not sign off on it before the services were rendered, however, it has to now be approved by the Legislature."
The Legislature's Post Audit division also provided a written statement at Tuesday's meeting which said Joseph's contract was originally supposed to be considered and signed along with the two contracts awarded to the Anne Carlsen Center for Children in 2002 to provide special education care to other V.I. students.
However, according to the analysis, Joseph's contract was "overlooked" when the three contracts were sent to Government House to be signed. When asked why, Millin explained that at the time, the government moved to handle the contracts awarded to the Carlsen Center because the facility had begun litigation proceedings against the government for failure to pay for the services rendered.
Millin also told senators that the Carlsen Center has refused to provide any further services to the territory because the government was unable to pay the money owed to the facility on a timely basis.
Michael further said that off-island placement for students is now being handled by the Human Services Department.
In other action, senators approved a $581,129 federal grant application for the St. Thomas East End Medical Center Corp., and a lease agreement between the V.I. government and Paris Car Rental Inc. The lease, which has a term of 40 years, is for $6,613.75 per year.
Present at Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Roosevelt C. David, Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Usie R. Richards, Ronald E. Russell, and Celestino A. White Sr.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste was absent.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.