April 4, 2007 — The nomination of Robert S. Mathes, recently appointed by Gov. John deJongh Jr. to head the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR), sailed through the Rules and Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, taking Mathes one step closer to a final confirmation by the full Senate body.
Throughout the meeting, Mathes seemed at ease on the floor, talking and laughing comfortably with senators. However, he remained serious on issues dealing with the department and stressed, in particular, the need for more employees, ranging from division directors to building and site inspectors.
"One of the biggest issues we're facing, and it hits you almost as soon as you walk into the door, is the lack of staff," Mathes said, adding that the department currently has 69 vacancies — 27 of which are federally funded. The remaining 42 slots are subsidized through the General Fund and rent collected from DPNR's tenants.
While Mathes said that federal funds used for employee salaries are not "necessarily in jeopardy" at this point in time, he also explained that the federal government is expecting the department "to move forward as quickly as possible" in filling the empty positions.
A large portion of DPNR's budget, about 66 percent, is made up of federal grants awarded to the agency for various programs and other expenses. While funds allocated for salaries may be intact, funds used for initiatives, such as the Community Development Block Grant, could be placed in a precarious position if "the department doesn't do something immediately," Mathes said after the meeting.
At various Senate hearings held over the past few months, CDBG Director Laurence Joshua has explained that the department has "historically" had problems with spending the federal funds, due to delays in obtaining construction plans, finding contractors and getting contracts approved by the Department of Property and Procurement. However, $4 million in unspent funds — or two years worth of federal block grant money — has to be used by August, or the office will have to answer to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (See "Block Grant Program Needs to Spend Funds ASAP, Official Says").
On Wednesday, Mathes outlined some of DPNR's other pressing needs, such as taking measures to "beef up" collections of outstanding receivables and revamping the department's Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning Office, whose small six-person staff has little or no planning experience.
"Don't get me wrong, the people who work in this division are not to blame. That distinction rests solely with our community that allowed this deterioration in the planning function to take place," Mathes said.
However, Mathes remained positive, saying that the division "can only move forward" with establishing "orderly" parameters for development throughout the territory. He added that DPNR is currently exploring the widely used "Smart Growth" theory, which balances development with environmental preservation, and will soon determine whether such a method could be implemented locally.
In an effort to revamp other divisions within the department, Mathes added that he would be looking to:
— facilitate more communication between employees working within the various sections;
— simplify the permitting process (this includes allowing permit applications and other information to be available online); and
— review and revise the territory's zoning laws.
In response to concerns raised by several senators about the increased number of ships anchoring in the territory's harbors, Mathes said he would also look into getting more enforcement officials out on the seas. However, he added that additional staff would be needed to patrol the waters and suggested that DPNR begin to work collaboratively with the Coast Guard and V.I. Port Authority.
Satisfied with Mathes' responses, senators unanimously approved his nomination and sent it onto the full body for a final vote.
Present during Wednesday's meeting were Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Usie R. Richards, James Weber III, Carmen M. Wesselhoft, Celestino A. White Sr. and Alvin L. Williams.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was absent.
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