July 22, 2008 — The territory is going through a period of economic terrorism, senators said Monday, during which residents are being held hostage by rising fuel prices. Senators insisted the V.I. Energy Office — now located within the Office of the Governor — should lead by example instead of letting local utilities set the policies.
But energy officials have not been asleep at the wheel, representatives from the Governor's Office said during the first round of budget hearings on St. Thomas. Though the agency is currently working alongside the V.I. Water and Power Authority to bring alternative energy to the territory, efforts are also under way to reduce the government's energy costs by five percent in the next year and 20 percent by 2020, according to Energy Office Director Bevan Smith Jr.
This includes retrofitting government buildings (including air conditioning systems and lamps), partnering with Public Works to explore alternate fuels for public transportation, and working with the Waste Management Authority to convert old cooking oil and grease to biodiesel that could be used to power the government's vehicle fleet, officials said.
For fiscal year 2009, the overall recommended budget for the Office of the Governor is about $13.7 million — $10.4 million from the General Fund, $311,000 in federal funds and a little over $3 million in other non-appropriated funds. The 53 percent increase over this year's budget (an overall jump of $4.8 million) would be put toward new security and maintenance employees, furniture and computers for a new Government House complex on St. Croix, a new telephone system, rent, travel expenses for the governor and completing the transition of the V.I. Energy Office to the Office of the Governor.
The Energy Office's fiscal year 2009 budget includes $150,000 from the General Fund, $259,000 in federal funds and about $2.88 million in Stripper Well Funds (special funds paid by the federal government for petroleum violations), for an overall $3.3 million. The agency currently has 19 employees and six vacancies totaling $257,154.
Also located within the Office of the Governor is the Bureau of Economic Research (BER), whose officials, senators said, should partner with Licensing and Consumer Affairs to conduct a study on fuel prices and profit margins realized by gas wholesalers and retailers throughout the territory. The bureau documents fuel prices for its consumer price index, and has noted that the numbers have steadily continued to rise each month, said Lauritz Mills, BER's chief researcher.
The bureau's budget for FY 2009 includes $806,116 from the General Fund, $150,000 from the Tourism Revolving Fund and $52,000 in federal funds for an overall budget of a little over $1 million. Of that amount, $616,919 would be put toward personnel costs and corresponding fringe benefits for its six employees, $356,200 for other services and charges, $20,100 for supplies, $6,500 for utilities and $8,397 for capital outlay.
The remaining $9.4 million will cover the central operations for the Office of the Governor, according to Nellie C. Varlack, the agency's director of business and administration. Between the three sections, personnel services costs total some $5.3 million (covering 100 General Fund positions, along with 20 federal and special fund positions), while associated fringe benefits add up to approximately $1.6 million.
The office's overall budget, including BER and the Energy Office, also includes:
— $362,000 for supplies (including $12,000 for the new complex on St. Croix);
— about $2.3 million for other services and charges (including $153,000 for repairs and maintenance on computers, scanners, buildings and elevators, along with $160,000 for land and building rentals, $60,000 for rental machines and equipment, $520,000 for professional services, $40,000 for training, $385,000 for communications and $255,000 to cover travel expenses);
— $709,000 for utility costs, and;
— $30,000 for capital outlay.
Present during Monday's hearing were Sens. Liston Davis, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Basil Ottley Jr., Ronald E. Russell and James Weber III.
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