The residents of St. Thomas won a victory last week when 11 of our senators voted to override the governor's veto of funding for two fire stations. But the battle isn't over! Residents must let Government House know how they feel about their fire stations. Both the Dorothea and Bordeaux stations should be open. Safety of the residents of the Virgin Islands must come first.
I've had many people come up and congratulate me on the override. Then they asked where the money is to come from. The Northside Civic Organization has put much thought into this question and has reached some conclusions.
We would like the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the other officials of the executive and legislative branches of government to consider the following sustainable funding sources to operate and maintain all fire, police and safety services in the territory. The Legislature would have to amend the Infrastructure Act of 2003 as follows to include an additional percentage of our property taxes earmarked for these essential services.
District Emergency Services Fund
(a) There is established a special fund in the Treasury of the Virgin Islands to be designated the District Emergency Services Fund and consisting of four separate accounts: St. Thomas District Emergency Services Fund, St. Croix District Emergency Services Fund, St. John District Emergency Services Fund and Water Island District Emergency Services Fund. Money shall be covered into the fund as provided in the subsection (b) of this section.
(b) Each island's District Emergency Services Fund account shall consist of 4 percent of all property taxes collected for that particular island. Distribution of property tax collections into each island's Emergency Services Account shall be made on Oct. 1 of each fiscal year. In addition to 4 percent of all property taxes collected for each island's Emergency Services Account before Oct. 1 of each year, 4 percent of all delinquent property taxes, including interest, collected after Oct. 1 of each fiscal year shall be deposited into the respective islands' Emergency Services Accounts.
(c) The commissioner of Finance shall make available out of the funds in each island's Emergency Services Account disbursements for expenditures under the direct control of the director of the Fire Services, the commissioner of Police and the Department of Health exclusively for fire, police, EMS maintenance, equipment and personnel.
(d) The commissioner of Finance shall maintain and provide for the administration of each island's "Emergency Services Account" and no funds therein shall be available for expenditures except as provided in this section.
The 4 percent figure is just a suggestion and needs further review as to the needs of each department for funding emergency services. Therefore we ask for further review of this sustainable funding source for the critical needs of our community.
Another source of funding is on the federal level. The SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Resources) Act provides the resources needed for 24-hour staffing according to the online Firehouse.com News.
The SAFER Act authorizes the administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration to award $7.6 billion over seven years in annual grants "for the purpose of hiring, recruiting and retaining career and volunteer firefighters to help communities meet industry minimum standards and attain 24-hour staffing to provide adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards, including acts of terrorism." This is just but one source of federal funding. All federal funding should be reviewed and implemented.
Additionally, we hope the statistics from this review will show that an integrated emergency management system should be planned so that more federal funds can be earmarked for the territory's needs.
Finally, we need legislation so that fire stations cannot be closed without a public hearing. There needs to be proof that the station is not needed. A lack of funding is not an acceptable reason for closing.
We truly do not want to have to repeat the measures that we had to employ in order to see that our stations remain open. We must push Government House on this issue. We do not want to wait for another fire. The silence from Government House is firing our apprehension.
Editor's note: Ann Durante-Arnold is president of the Northside Civic Organization and wrote this commentary on its behalf.
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