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Legislature Works to Monitor Stimulus Funds

March 9, 2009 — The territory has a long history of letting federal funds slip away unspent, so senators tried Monday to nail down exactly when the $248 million expected from the economic stimulus package will roll into the territory and how the dollars will be tracked once they hit the streets.
After hours of repetitive testimony from members of the governor's cabinet and financial team, the consensus at the end of the all-day Committee of the Whole hearing was that different timetables have been set up, or will be set up, by the federal government for spending the funds. In every situation, however, a series of accountability measures are being put in place to ensure the funds are being spent according to American Recovery and Reinvestment Act mandates — otherwise, the money will be sent to other states and territories that can use them, officials said.
The makeup of the package shifted continuously on its journey through Congress, channeling a good chunk of the money expected for brick-and-mortar projects toward federal programs. Most of the cash coming into the territory will be awarded based on formulas set up for each program, leaving only about $20 million in infrastructure initiatives and capital projects, financial team members said Monday. Meanwhile, local departments and agencies can also tap into a number of grant funds being awarded on a competitive basis, according to Public Finance Authority head Julito Francis.
In a recent press conference, Gov. John deJongh Jr. outlined plans to create an Office of Economic Opportunity under the PFA, given responsibility for overseeing the distribution and tracking of the funds. While the numbers are still in flux, the territory is also expected to receive about $10 million to repair and improve public housing, $30 million for energy efforts, some tax relief for working families ($400 per individual and $800 per couple), a 13-percent increase in funding for food stamp recipients and a 30-percent increase in Medicaid assistance, among other things. (See "Governor Calls Stimulus Plan a 'Breathtakingly Fresh' Approach.")
Money has already begun trickling into agencies such as Human Services and Health, which recently had a $4 million credit applied to the local Medicaid budget. In these instances, the Office of Economic Opportunity, along with the Office of Management and Budget, will look at each department's spending plan, and then continue to monitor them to make sure they stay on target, OMB Director Gottlieb said.
In other cases, however, the government doesn't know what kind of strings are going to be attached to the federal money. And, since guidelines on how the fund should be spent are still being developed, no specific allocations have been released, Gottlieb explained.
Senators lamented that the components of the package were "too vague," and said some of the government's past accountability problems would soon come back home to roost.
"Before the package was signed into law, the V.I. government was already in reform mode, looking at streamlining procurement processes and making sure departments and agencies are adequately staffed," said Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone. "There are a lot of deficiencies, like us not having the workforce or our inability to send the federal funds that raise questions in my mind as to how ready we are to spend the $248 million."
But commissioners said they would stay on top of the money, making sure that much of it is obligated within a certain time frame toward expenses or projects that could get off the ground quickly. Public Works, for example, expects to earmark at least 50 percent of its money about 120 days after it starts coming in, said Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls. All bids, contracts and public notices will be posted on a new federal website — recovery.gov — and the government is required to make quarterly reports detailing the list of projects on which the funds will be spent, among other things.
Meanwhile, the extra food stamp money should start being disbursed by the beginning of next month, according to Human Services Commissioner Chris Finch.
Education is ready to go in at least three program areas, said Education Commissioner La Verne Terry. Meanwhile, about 81 percent of the $67 million in fiscal stabilization funds slated for the territory could go toward educational initiatives, such as school modernization, she said. It's unclear at this point how much wiggle room the government will have in determining how the money will be spent, but it's possible the department will be able to take care of some "major" capital projects or summer-maintenance initiatives, Terry said.
"We're hopeful that we will get more flexibility in spending the money so that we can support departments and agencies that may not have sufficient funding as a result of budget cuts," said Nathan Simmonds, the governor's senior policy advisor.
A separate government account will also be created for the stimulus money, which will be coded and tracked through the financial-management system, said Finance Commissioner Claudette Watson-Anderson.
"In the case of competitive grants, we plan on working with each of the agencies, and asking them to designate one person of contact responsible for working with the Office of Economic Opportunity," Francis said later. "In those cases, we're hoping that we would be ahead of the game in helping the agencies define their plans on how they're going to go after the money and how they will spend it, so that maybe the Virgin Islands can be at the top of the heap."
The office will also work with firms already contracted by the government to maintain accountability standards and help the agencies apply for grants, Francis said.
Present during Monday's hearing were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Wayne James, Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nerieda Rivera-O'Reilly, Usie R. Richards, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Michael Thurland, Celestino A. White Sr. and Alvin L. Williams.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes was absent.
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March 9, 2009 -- The territory has a long history of letting federal funds slip away unspent, so senators tried Monday to nail down exactly when the $248 million expected from the economic stimulus package will roll into the territory and how the dollars will be tracked once they hit the streets.
After hours of repetitive testimony from members of the governor's cabinet and financial team, the consensus at the end of the all-day Committee of the Whole hearing was that different timetables have been set up, or will be set up, by the federal government for spending the funds. In every situation, however, a series of accountability measures are being put in place to ensure the funds are being spent according to American Recovery and Reinvestment Act mandates -- otherwise, the money will be sent to other states and territories that can use them, officials said.
The makeup of the package shifted continuously on its journey through Congress, channeling a good chunk of the money expected for brick-and-mortar projects toward federal programs. Most of the cash coming into the territory will be awarded based on formulas set up for each program, leaving only about $20 million in infrastructure initiatives and capital projects, financial team members said Monday. Meanwhile, local departments and agencies can also tap into a number of grant funds being awarded on a competitive basis, according to Public Finance Authority head Julito Francis.
In a recent press conference, Gov. John deJongh Jr. outlined plans to create an Office of Economic Opportunity under the PFA, given responsibility for overseeing the distribution and tracking of the funds. While the numbers are still in flux, the territory is also expected to receive about $10 million to repair and improve public housing, $30 million for energy efforts, some tax relief for working families ($400 per individual and $800 per couple), a 13-percent increase in funding for food stamp recipients and a 30-percent increase in Medicaid assistance, among other things. (See "Governor Calls Stimulus Plan a 'Breathtakingly Fresh' Approach.")
Money has already begun trickling into agencies such as Human Services and Health, which recently had a $4 million credit applied to the local Medicaid budget. In these instances, the Office of Economic Opportunity, along with the Office of Management and Budget, will look at each department's spending plan, and then continue to monitor them to make sure they stay on target, OMB Director Gottlieb said.
In other cases, however, the government doesn't know what kind of strings are going to be attached to the federal money. And, since guidelines on how the fund should be spent are still being developed, no specific allocations have been released, Gottlieb explained.
Senators lamented that the components of the package were "too vague," and said some of the government's past accountability problems would soon come back home to roost.
"Before the package was signed into law, the V.I. government was already in reform mode, looking at streamlining procurement processes and making sure departments and agencies are adequately staffed," said Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone. "There are a lot of deficiencies, like us not having the workforce or our inability to send the federal funds that raise questions in my mind as to how ready we are to spend the $248 million."
But commissioners said they would stay on top of the money, making sure that much of it is obligated within a certain time frame toward expenses or projects that could get off the ground quickly. Public Works, for example, expects to earmark at least 50 percent of its money about 120 days after it starts coming in, said Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls. All bids, contracts and public notices will be posted on a new federal website -- recovery.gov -- and the government is required to make quarterly reports detailing the list of projects on which the funds will be spent, among other things.
Meanwhile, the extra food stamp money should start being disbursed by the beginning of next month, according to Human Services Commissioner Chris Finch.
Education is ready to go in at least three program areas, said Education Commissioner La Verne Terry. Meanwhile, about 81 percent of the $67 million in fiscal stabilization funds slated for the territory could go toward educational initiatives, such as school modernization, she said. It's unclear at this point how much wiggle room the government will have in determining how the money will be spent, but it's possible the department will be able to take care of some "major" capital projects or summer-maintenance initiatives, Terry said.
"We're hopeful that we will get more flexibility in spending the money so that we can support departments and agencies that may not have sufficient funding as a result of budget cuts," said Nathan Simmonds, the governor's senior policy advisor.
A separate government account will also be created for the stimulus money, which will be coded and tracked through the financial-management system, said Finance Commissioner Claudette Watson-Anderson.
"In the case of competitive grants, we plan on working with each of the agencies, and asking them to designate one person of contact responsible for working with the Office of Economic Opportunity," Francis said later. "In those cases, we're hoping that we would be ahead of the game in helping the agencies define their plans on how they're going to go after the money and how they will spend it, so that maybe the Virgin Islands can be at the top of the heap."
The office will also work with firms already contracted by the government to maintain accountability standards and help the agencies apply for grants, Francis said.
Present during Monday's hearing were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Wayne James, Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nerieda Rivera-O'Reilly, Usie R. Richards, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Michael Thurland, Celestino A. White Sr. and Alvin L. Williams.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes was absent.
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.