July 26, 2004 Dean Plaskett, Department of Planning and Natural Resources commissioner, gave the Senate Finance Committee Monday an inside look at his department's operations. He and his staff fielded questions for more than four hours on everything from marine and environmental law enforcement to the territory's library and museum programs. The agency also oversees the Coastal Zone Management division.
A highlight of the presentation was when Plaskett noted that at long last, legislation for a Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan would see the light of day next month in hearings before the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee.
The plan, which was first conceived in 1989, calls for the entire territory to be looked at as one tier. Currently, the territory has two tiers, one along the shores and the other inland. Development proposed for the shoreline tier gets closer scrutiny. Under the new plan, inland development will face more scrutiny than it currently gets. See "Land and Water Use Plan Hearings Could Start in July."In answer to Sen. Luther Renee, Plaskett said it would cost $617,000 to implement the Land and Water Use plan in department funding. Sen. Louis Hill, chair of the Senate Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, which will hear the bill, sponsored by Sen. Usie Richards, said later, "The plan doesn't really require a funding source. It's a policy now. It doesn't require any new divisions." He said he hadn't discussed funding with Plaskett. The committee will hold 6 p.m. hearings Aug. 18 on St. Croix, Aug.24 on St. Thomas and Sept. 8 on St. John. Hill said the bill is currently in the office of the Senate legal counsel.
The largest part of the agency's $35.3 million budget is supported by federal funds $23.4 million or 66.4 percent. The General Fund provides $7.2 million, or 20.5 percent, including $1.2 million from the V. I. Rum Effluent research project. The remaining $4.6 million comes from other special funds. The commissioner's office's $354,934 is totally covered by the General Fund, Plaskett said.
Upon questioning from the senators, Plaskett said since he took office in 1999, his policy has been to "shore up all federal grants, and to pursue new ones." He added, "We meet the grant deadlines. We surpass not only timeliness, but the quality of our grant applications." Several of the agency's divisions exist totally on the federal funds.
Commenting on Plaskett's 23-page presentation, Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste told Plaskett he was pleased with Plaskett's "fiction." He had questions about a situation on St. Croix, which, he said, endangers residents living too close to a Water and Power Authority plant. "I think air pollution in the area is significant," he said. "It should be moved." Plaskett agreed. "WAPA is not using the most modern techniques," he said.
Plaskett had good news on some projects; not so on others. Renovation on Fort Christian, in the works for more than six years, was recently scheduled to begin about June. Plaskett said Monday that the renovations are now slated to start in "mid-October." A hearing was held on the project delays in February. See "Excuses Abound for Snagged Capital Projects."
The Gustave Quetel Fish Market in Frenchtown is moving closer to a reality. He said architectural plans are in the "final stages of approval by the Public Works Department" before the work goes out to bid.
Funds from a Community Development Block Grant had been slashed in half, Plaskett said. However, "The Lt. Governor said he would try to solicit more funding from the Public Finance Authority."
Sen. Roosevelt David asked Plaskett what was going on with the mid-island Tutu Public Library. In a July 2000 Senate committee meeting, David proposed legislation to create a public library in the Tutu area on St. Thomas. His colleagues at the time questioned the need to mandate a library when plans for one had been in the works for years. Claudette Lewis, DPNR assistant commissioner, and longtime advocate of the mid-island library, said the Economic Development Authority has approved benefits for Tutu Park Ltd., which is required to build the library as part of its benefits package. She said architectural plans should be in place before the end of the year. Plaskett noted that because he is chairman of the EDA, he excused himself from the company's benefit hearing process.
Plaskett said the agency's building permit division generated $1 million in fiscal year 2003, "which is significant when you consider the number of waivers we have granted to government agencies and non-profit organizations." For the first three quarters of fiscal year 2004, the division has collected $417,873, however, he said, the fourth quarter is usually the one bringing in the most money.
He said the division has been successful in attracting outside organizations to do specialized inspection services for which DPNR doesn't have sufficient staffing. He said the Hovensa Coker project on St. Croix, the Crown Bay development and Home Depot on St. Thomas are examples of this initiative, which allows the department to "maximize its limited inspection personnel to focus more on residential construction coverage."
Under questioning by Sen. Ronald Russell, Plaskett explained why the roof repair program for repair of homes damaged by Hurricane Georges in 1998 was still not completed. Funds for the program must be spent by December 2004.
Plaskett said, "It's a peculiar circumstance we inherited." He said it's very difficult to determine what damage was caused specifically by Hurricane Georges, and not Hurricane Hugo, or any of the other storms. He said two homes have been completed, but there was a delay because the cost of repairing the selected houses exceeded the amount of funding. "We are proceeding with what is before us," he said.
The agency spends $609,955.91 in rents annually, Plaskett said in answer to Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, committee chair. Donastorg has long recommended a rent reduction program for government agencies.
"It's a pet peeve of mine," said Plaskett. "We pay $210,000 a year for the Rainbow facility in Frederiksted, mostly by federal funds. The government should purchase the facility, and we would rent it back." Plaskett said DPNR pays $236,000 to the V. I. Port Authority for its space at the Cyril E. King Airport
Russell asked Plaskett about the status of the recent CZM decision to rescind a permit to Golden Gaming Resorts after it was supposedly earned by default.
Because legal action is being taken on the matter, Plaskett said he could comment only "generically." He said the CZM committee determined that the counsel they received on the matter was inadequate and not accurate. Therefore, they hired an outside attorney to advise whether the default decision was appropriate. A meeting is scheduled this week, Plaskett said. See St. Croix Source "Golden Resorts gets it CZM Permit by Default."
Plaskett said he was aggressively seeking and recommending to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull candidates for the Commission's two district committees. Lack of a quorum contributed to the Golden Gaming controversy.
The committee was scheduled to hear from the Agriculture Department in the afternoon.
All committee members Sens. David, Donastorg, Hill, Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Renee and Russell attended.
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