July 21, 2004 – Although the administration is proposing to cut his fiscal year 2005 budget by about 8.8 percent, Housing, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Hobson did not ask the Senate Finance Committee for a funding increase at the department's hearing on Wednesday.
The proposed $5.1 million FY 2005 budget is $434,603 less than the current one. Nevertheless, Hobson said the governor's proposed level of funding will allow the department to "develop initiatives and better living standards while producing a higher quality of decent housing and healthy recreation."
That opinion was challenged by Sen. Ronald Russell. "The recreation budget has been cut," he said. "The programs are too short."
Hobson had provided the committee a breakdown of the territory's youth outreach programs. "The rising population of youths in the territory needs to be addressed. They need these programs," he said.
Russell said by not providing enough recreation opportunities for youngsters, "we are just setting ourselves up for problems." He suggested that Hobson change his funding priorities, noting that "there are two other housing agencies and only one recreation agency." (His reference was to the V.I. Housing Authority and Housing Finance Authority.")
Hobson said since he has been commissioner the department's number of recreation leaders has dropped from "248 some years ago" to 157 today. And, he said, the number of department employees overall has been reduced by 32 per cent over the last five years.
Senators expressed concern at the status of the department's Homestead and Home Loan Fund. Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull wrote Hobson last November telling him that his budget request of $150,000 for the fund could not be honored.
"The fund owes the General Fund $1.8 million, based on a 1999 amendment passed by the Legislature which mandates 100 percent of the Stamp Tax proceeds should accrue to the General Fund," Turnbull wrote Hobson. She suggested he seek additional funding from the Legislature.
There is currently $630,000 in the fund, Hobson said, but the department can't make home loans until he works out an arrangement with Turnbull.
Sen. Roosevelt David asked if Hobson has tried to work something out with Turnbull. "I am being penalized because a mistake was made," Hobson replied. David retorted, "You aren't penalized; it's the people without homes who are penalized."
Hobson said later that it might be possible to process some loans utilizing the $630,000, but the Finance commissioner wants the $630,000 applied to the $1.8 million owed.
Hobson said 100 homes have been completed in Castle Burke on St. Croix. He said the development was made possible by several agencies — Rural Development, the Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Rural Development took out the mortgage, Hobson said, and HUD provided a grant of $750,000 for subsidies to persons unable to meet housing loan requirements without financial help. He said the development is now in the second stage, with 17 new homes under construction.
They are three-bedroom houses on plots of 8,000 square feet that are priced at $60,000. "There is no way in the Virgin Islands you will see homes for $60,000 again," Hobson said.
He expressed concern about some Castle Burke residents living in mobile homes they were sold as part of a package with the land. "It is evident that a large number of these persons may not have the means to construct a home," he said, and so they remain in the trailers, vulnerable to hurricane damage. He said he has spoken to a HUD official about the possibility of a special loan program for these residents.
Hobson also said the Adventure Hill lease-to-homeownership of 84 residences on St. Croix is nearing completion. Many tenants have completed the payments on their homes and have the deeds, he said.
And, he said, the first phase of a homeownership program on St. Thomas is about to start. "These will be two duplex, three-bedroom homes and four three-bedroom single homes at Estate Altona," he said. The second phase will be the construction of 15 to 30 three-bedroom single family homes at Estate Ross, he said.
David asked the status of the St. Thomas project and showed astonishment at the answer. Hobson said the project has been held up by "paperwork." "For how long?"David asked. "Three years," Hobson replied, adding that he is "a little frustrated."
David said, "You shouldn't be 'a little frustrated.' You should be totally upset."
Hobson said the problem is that both the Housing Authority and the Housing Finance Authority own the land. While neither agency is interested in utilizing the property, he said, there has been a holdup in acquiring title. "I have all the documents," he said, and the matter "is in the Attorney General's Office now."
Russell said government paperwork holding up the project is "unacceptable. There is neglect, and we can't ignore the people's business."
Later, Raymond James, Housing, Parks and Recreation attorney, explained a little of the background. "It's a clouded issue," he said, "and it may not have been three years. There are several government agencies involved, and it is in the court now. We need a hearing to determine who will get the land. What is happening now is the normal judicial process."
The department, while underfunded, has made strides in the recreation area, Hobson said, citing major repairs made to parks in both districts. Tennis and basketball courts have been resurfaced and lights were placed in all of the parks, he said. Work on three special projects — tot lots in the Savan and Emile Griffith Park on St. Thomas and at Sion Farm on St. Croix is scheduled to be completed soon, he said.
The Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, is in the third week of budget hearings which are scheduled to continue through the end of July. The committee also heard testimony on Wednesday from the St. Thomas and St. Croix Horse Racing Commissions, the Labor Department and the V.I. Labor Management Committee. A report on those presentations will be posted in the Source on Thursday.
Committee members present for Wednesday's hearings were Sens. David, Donastorg and Russell. Not present were Sens. Louis Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone and Luther Renee. Also present was Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who is not a member.
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