Feb. 18, 2009 — Even with the promise of a $244 million windfall from the federal economic stimulus package, Gov. John deJongh Jr. underscored Thursday the continued need for fiscal responsibility during the ongoing economic crisis.
The territory will get the funds — expected to help out in a variety of areas ranging for education to public works projects — over the next couple of years. But with the government's longstanding property tax battle still waging in the courts, the territory could face a $40 million budget shortfall this year, deJongh said during a press conference Thursday.
Since the makeup of the stimulus package has changed over the past few weeks, with a shift in focus from capital projects to federal programs, deJongh said he would also be working closely with local legislators on a proposed bond issue that would help fill in some of the funding gaps. About $67 million in fiscal stabilization funds slated for the territory might also be put toward the budget, he said.
The stabilization funds are designed to provide states and territories with some additional cash for education, infrastructure and government services. Officials are required to work with the U.S. secretaries of Education and Interior to determine how the funds will be used, deJongh explained. The governor said he will travel to Washington, D.C. over the weekend to meet with 50 other state and territorial governors to discuss what other areas the funds could be put toward.
In the meantime, the $787 billion stimulus package is the "start of something new" and "breathtakingly fresh," a means by which the local government can reinvest in the economy, infrastructure and its people, deJongh said. Along with $20 million in transportation funds that will be put toward a variety of "shovel-ready" projects, the territory will also receive: $10 million to repair and improve public housing, $30 million for energy efforts, tax relief for working families ($400 per individual and $800 per couple), a 30-percent increase in Medicaid assistance and a 13-percent increase in funding for food stamp recipients.
Local retirees on Social Security, along with veterans receiving benefits, will get a $250 bonus check from the government. Unemployed workers will receive extended unemployment insurance, along with an extra $100 a month in benefits, deJongh said.
Various agencies also have the opportunity to apply for some competitive grant funds, which could bring in more money for local non-profits, airport improvements, water and power projects and technological advancements, he said.
All efforts will be made to use and not lose the money, the governor added. A new Office of Economic Opportunity — tasked with distributing and tracking the funds — will be created within the Public Finance Authority. Each category of funding comes along with specific spending deadlines, and whatever money is not spent in a "timely fashion" will be redistributed to other states, he said.
"In return for the many benefits provided to the Virgin Islands under this bill, the federal government has imposed unprecedented requirements of accountability and transparency, over and above our normal government procedures," deJongh said. "This is something my administration has advocated and worked toward since I took office, so we welcome these requirements."
The government will spend the money, and will be "spending it right," he added. Many of public works projects — which will bring around more construction jobs — have already been approved by the Legislature, but have remained stagnant because of a lack of funding. Some of the federal project money could be coming within the next 30 to 40 days, deJongh said.
Meanwhile, the stimulus bill, officially named the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, sets up a new federal Recovery, Accountability and Transparency Board to investigate and prevent fraud, abuse and the waste of funding, deJongh said. All bids, contracts and public notices will also be posted on a new federal website. A local website — www.GovernordeJongh.com/recovery — will be set up, allowing residents to learn more about funding opportunities and track how the government is using the stimulus money.
The Virgin Islands is slated to receive:
— $13.4 million for the Food Stamp program, Emergency Food Assistance Program and School Lunch program;
— $6.9 million in law enforcement assistance;
— $33 million for energy projects and programs
— $138,600 for Federal Emergency Management Agency food and shelter programs;
— $4 million for interior and environmental protection;
— $2.9 million for workforce training assistance;
— $4.8 million for Health and Human Services (child care development, Head Start and community services grants);
— almost $20 million for transportation and infrastructure projects;
— $9.8 million for housing and urban development;
— $50 million to reimburse the territory for tax relief checks disbursed to working families;
— $9.1 million in additional Medicaid funds.
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