Dec. 24, 2002 – Chairing a meeting of the Senate Housing Parks and Recreation Committee for the last time, Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. on Monday night pledged his support to the Housing Authority and its new executive director, Ray Fonseca.
But he also chastised Fonseca for failing to return his telephone calls in recent days during a shake-up in which 14 top agency officials were fired as part of federally mandated budget cutting. "Why hide from me? Why shun me?" White asked.
At the start of the hearing, which followed a day-long full Senate session, White said that Fonseca had approached him seeking funds for the Lucinda Millin Home for the Aged. But since the request came in the evening, after the Senate had concluded its deliberations, White said, nothing could be done, and "the moneys were not moved."
The committee meeting was delayed for an hour as the 24th Legislature wrapped up the last full session of its two-year term. The lawmakers approved a number of appropriations to benefit public housing, including funds to preserve the Housing Authority Police, now scheduled to go out of business on Dec. 31, or to pay the officers' salaries according to seniority if a plan goes through to absorb the force into the ranks of the regular Police Department.
The Senate also appropriated $2.1 million for rent subsidies to seniors and low-income residents; authorized the purchase of land at Estate Ross on St. Thomas for development of a 16-unit home-ownership community; and approved rezoning to allow construction at Estate Hoffman/Nullyberg on St. Thomas. At that location, a new public housing community is planned to replace units lost in the hurricane destruction and subsequent demolition of the Warren E. Brown Apartments in downtown Charlotte Amalie.
About 40 people turned out for the committee meeting, which White said was not a public hearing, so those in the audience would not be able to testify. White noted that Fitzgerald Rowe, chair of the VIHA board, did not show up. The meeting initially had been scheduled for Dec. 16, and Rowe had written before that to tell the committee he could not attend. White subsequently rescheduled the session for Monday night. Rowe sent a last-minute apology Monday night, again saying he would not be able to appear.
This seemed to annoy White, who ordered Fonseca not to read into the record a prepared statement Rowe had sent in lieu of appearing.
A new Democratic Party majority is in place for the 25th Legislature, and White is not a member of it and so will lose his position as committee chair. But he said Monday night that he will continue as a member of the committee and will seek to make some changes in the VIHA board.
Fonseca and his team said their actions were justified and stated their goals in revamping the Housing Authority, reading from statements and showing slides depicting conditions in some public housing communities. The images included leaky pipes, cracked floors and walls, dangling electrical wires and insect infestations.
Lydia Hughes, VIHA contract service chief, told the senators: "The grounds in which these communities are built are filled with damaged fencing, an array of garbage, muddy ponds of water, broken sidewalks, abandoned cars, frequent amounts of sewage backups and, most of all, crime. The residents of public housing, especially on St. Croix, have had to endure with leaking roofs, leaking pipes, defective concrete ceilings, damaged walls with exposed piping, rodents and roaches, termites and even beehives in their units."
Fonseca and his team said they want to give housing communities managers more resources and maintenance personnel to improve conditions. They also want to institute a federal program that encourages housing residents to establish small businesses. If they can get enough residents to take part and develop different skills, the VIHA officials said, they hope to be able to contract their services in the overall effort to keep the communities in good condition.
But Fonseca also told the committee that he anticipates a new round of federal budget cuts that will further restrict VIHA's ability to turn things around in the coming year. Next year, federal funds for public housing across the country are expected to be cut by another 10 percent, he said, adding that he had not factored this into his recovery plan for the authority.
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