July 28, 2004 – The Fire Service is 31 years behind in the level of services it should be providing but will make do with an appropriation sufficient to cover personnel costs and basic operational needs, its director said on Tuesday in seeking a budget increase of $73,000 for fiscal year 2005.
The Adjutant General's Office asked for less money than it got for FY 2004 but emphasized the importance of timely release of allocations to ensure the availability of federal matching funds.
Despite an upbeat tone and recognition of support the V.I. Fire Service has received of late from the Senate, its newly confirmed director, Merwin C. Potter, had sobering words for the Finance Committee on Tuesday at the agency's fiscal year 2005 budget hearing.
"We are currently 31 years behind the level of service we should be providing this community," Potter said.
Asked by Sen. Luther Renee to elaborate, Potter said that 31 years ago fire departments on the U.S. mainland started providing "hazardous materials and emergency medical services; so far we have not been able to do any of these things."
He said there is a similar problem with the agency's firefighting equipment, some of it 20 to 30 years old. "We shouldn't have this apparatus on the street," he said.
If the goal of the Fire Service is merely to survive difficult financial times, it is holding its own. Potter outlined his request for FY 2005 budget of $13,480,417, or $73,000 above the 2004 appropriation. With this money, he said, he is "happy that the level of funding" will cover mandatory costs such as wages and benefits, annual physicals and all of the department's basic operational needs.
He said 16 recruits are in their sixth week of a 10-week training course and noted that their joining the force will allow for the reopening of the Dorothea fire station on St. Thomas in September. The fire station, the only one on the island's North Side, reopened in June 2002 after having been closed for three and a half years and having undergone extensive renovations. Within a year, it closed again, with Fire Service officials saying the action was taken after several firefighters retired and five others in the V.I. National Guard were called to active duty in Iraq.
As signs of progress, Potter also pointed to the acquisition of a new fire boat for the St. Thomas-St. John district, his hope that a Coral Bay fire station will open in October, the acquisition of hazardous materials detection equipment and training in its use, and a program for fire personnel to become certified in Emergency Medical Services. Still, he said, there is a long list of equipment and services the territory will have to do without for now.
He said there is no money for a new fire truck needed to reopen the Bordeaux station on St. Thomas's West End and no money to fund the opening itself. There are no resources for a permanent training unit or a career incentive program, not enough fire hydrants on St. Croix, and no funding for computer software to coordinate the Police Department and Fire Service 911 system. And while there are 16 new recruits, he said, he wanted the full 24 for which money has been appropriated.
Sen. Carlton Dowe, a former firefighter and vocal proponent of improved emergency services in the territory, said the Office of Management and Budget is to blame for the eight "missing" trainees. "OMB has been authorized [to release the funds], but they've only released enough for 16," he said.
The financial situation is causing morale problems, too, according to Potter. He said there is no money for promotions, and the service is short at least two fire captains.
Sen. Ronald Russell suggested the firefighters might be able to bring in revenues through fire-safety inspections, as the agency gets to keep a portion of inspection fees. But the lack of manpower in the prevention and inspection area will hamper, if not stop, this approach, Potter said, adding that there are five qualified inspectors on St. Croix, three on St. Thomas and no way of hiring additional staff now.
Finance Committee members present for the hearing were the chair, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg; and Sens. Roosevelt David, Louis Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste, Renee and Russell. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was excused. Also present were Sens. Carlton Dowe and Almando "Rocky" Liburd, who are not members of the committee.
Adjutant General's Office
The Finance Committee heard mostly positive news from the Office of the Adjutant General, which has oversight for the V.I. National Guard and the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency.
The Adjutant General's Office is asking for a budget of $1,482,668 for FY 2005, a reduction from the FY 2004 appropriation of nearly $1.6 million. The National Guard would get 60 percent, or $906,317, while VITEMA would get 40 percent, or $576,351.
Officials emphasized that the funds must be not only appropriated, but also released in a timely fashion. The funding would account for 25 percent of the National Guard's total operating and maintenance budget and 50 percent of VITEMA's, with the remainder coming in federal matching funds provided that the agencies have the territorial dollars in hand.
Col. Deborah Howell, VING chief of staff, stood in for Brig. Gen. Cleave A. McBean, adjutant general and executive director of Vitema, at the hearing. Howell reviewed FY 2004 operations. She said the office employs more than 700 persons on a part or full-time basis, with the National Guard "providing "full-time federal employment to a combination of over 200 military and civilian personnel." She also pointed out that VING is active year 'round, not just in times of crisis.
Through school outreach and other education programs, Howell said, VING is providing "support in the fight against drugs." It also supports annual summer camps in Puerto Rico for the territory's Junior ROTC members, has formed its own Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops on St. Croix, and assists the territory's Civil Air Patrol.
Col. Marion Petersen, federal property and fiscal officer, said the National Guard gets $20 million of its budget from federal government. She also said Guard operations should contribute about $20 million to the local economy this year in the form of such things as hotel rooms for air crews and military passengers, over-water training exercises, aircraft fuel purchases and out-of-pocket expenses of personnel.
Two VING units were mobilization for service abroad in the last 18 months. About 50 members of the 631st Engineers Team were sent to Afghanistan in the fall of 2003, and 62 members of the 661st Military Police Company were sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, just over a year ago. Both units have returned to the territory, but Howell said two other units are on alert for deployment.
Finance Committee members repeatedly raised the idea of using Guard personnel to bolster local law-enforcement efforts. Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste suggested "creative use" of Guard personnel in order to free up police from such things as traffic enforcement.
However, Howell said that in the absence of a presidential declaration of emergency in the territory, the V.I. government would have to cover the cost of using Guard members in such a manner. She also told the Senators that any deployment "has to be mission-specific and within the area of specialty" of the personnel. "You can't deploy a medic to do traffic control," she said. She also pointed out that most Guard personnel are part-time, and many of them are in fact police officers.
Harold Baker, VITEMA director, told the senators that the agency's principal mission "as a first responder is to save lives and property of the territory's population" in times of natural and man-made disasters.
Baker said the agency's recent accomplishments include preparation of an
updated flood mitigation plan that will soon be released, completion of a catastrophic disaster management guide, and installation of a new weather/emergency alert system on St. Croix.
Sen. Lorraine Berry asked if the agency had "a territory-wide natural disaster contingency plan in place." Bake replied, "Yes, including a plan for a tsunami."
Sen. Louis Hill asked about the territory's hurricane preparedness. Baker answered that all emergency shelters have been inspected by the Red Cross and are ready for occupancy. And, he said, "Food and water supplies are taken care of."
At the close of the session, Hill appeared to speak for his colleagues as well when he told Baker that "you sound like you're on top of your job, and I want to commend you for that."
Finance Committee members present for the hearing were the chair, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg; and Sens. Roosevelt David, Louis Hill, Norman Jn Baptiste, Renee and Russell. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was excused. Also present were Sens. Carlton Dowe, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Celestino A. White Sr., who are not members of the committee.
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