Coming back from a long campaign season and a shutdown of the Capitol Building brought on by asbestos in the roof, senators capped off a late night session Monday with the approval of three blockbuster bills that made available funds for deteriorating roads and expenses not included in the fiscal year 2011 budget.
Most of the money, at least for the budget items, is coming from the General Fund, but should be sustained by an increase in projected revenues, Office of Management and Budget Director Debra Gottlieb said during a break. While the government is still financially strained, it has been able to borrow funds and shift around some money to back the budget — including, for example, using 100 percent of Stamp Tax revenues earmarked for the V.I. Housing Finance Authority to cover some of the appropriations.
The Stamp Tax authorization was included Monday in a lengthy omnibus bill containing a mish-mash of appropriations, policy changes, whole pieces of legislation that haven’t yet made it off the floor and even sections of bills that have previously been vetoed by the governor.
Members of the governor’s financial team came prepared to defend about half the bill’s sections, which, among other things: puts back in some deleted employee positions at various government departments; provides funds for school sports and covers the government’s share of contributions to the Government Employees’ Retirement System for specific agencies, such as Education; and appropriates $1.5 million to the V.I. Waste Management Authority for the operation of a wastewater plant on St. John and transporting solid waste.
Another section of the bill, Gottlieb explained later, extends benefits — specifically, hours of annual and sick leave credited to GERS members retiring between Jan. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2010 — granted to government employees for whom the funding has already expired. Gottlieb said the Senate passed the money needed to cover the contributions but only made it available until September 2010.
Several senators were concerned that they didn’t have enough time to review all the bill’s sections, which they said in many cases were vague and needed additional research. In the end, Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Wayne James, Sammuel Sanes and Michael Thurland voted in favor of the measure, while Sens. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Usie R. Richards voted against it.
Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Shawn-Michael Malone, Patrick Simeon Sprauve, Celestino A. White Sr. and Alvin L. Williams were either absent during the session or at voting time.
Despite concerns, however, senators rallied around a bill that authorized more than $8 million for territory-wide road repairs made critical by the recent two months of heavy rains. In a press conference last week, Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls said the government was seeking another presidential disaster declaration that could make federal funding available to cover damage caused by Tropical Storm Tomas, but in the meantime, would be turning to the Senate for the money needed to make immediate repairs.
Senators authorized up to $8.2 million — $4 million for St. Thomas-St. John and $4.2 million for St. Croix — for the repairs, which would be coming from any "existing road funds" available to cover the emergency projects. Though many griped that the bill’s broad language would allow Smalls to pluck money from other much-needed projects that might be able to get off the ground as a result, all agreed that the roads were in bad enough shape that something had to be done as soon as possible.
Specifically, Richards and Rivera-O’Reilly said the lack of any specific projects or funding sources took away the Legislature’s financial oversight powers and left senators open to the kind of controversy that emerged over security enhancements made to the governor’s St. Thomas residence.
Closing out the night, senators approved a bill authorizing the Public Finance Authority to do what it has to do to get its territory-wide broadband initiative — including going after and using federal funds and bond proceeds to implement, administer and operate the network — up and running.
In March, the PFA board authorized the issuance of up to $20 million in new bonds needed to help finance the project, which is expected to cost more than $100 million. The government has been applying for federal grants to cover most of the costs and has since received five separate awards allowing for not only the construction of the network, but conducting public awareness campaigns, expanding job skills and setting up computer centers, among other things.
At this point, the government has $106 million for the construction of the fiber optic network, to include $59 million in federal funds, along with $15 million in in-kind contributions from WAPA and the new bond proceeds, which will be used as a federal match.
At a meeting in September, PFA board members voted to tack another $12 million onto the bond issue, bringing the total up to $32 million, which would: provide $5 million in working capital for the network over the next three to four years; cover $2 million worth of expenses not covered by the federal grants; and help the government acquire and build out its main computer and network operations centers.
Meanwhile, the board has established a wholly owned subsidiary of the PFA called the V.I. Next Generation Network charged with implementing and operating the broadband assets on an ongoing basis once the network has been built. The PFA would be the subsidiary’s sole stock holder, while a group of seven individuals would sit on its board of directors.
The bill found an enthusiastic supporter in Hill, who described it as historic, "something that’s going to touch the lives of hundreds of thousands of Virgin Islanders in the future."
"This is an advance in technology that we so desperately need," he added during Monday’s session. "It’s one of those pieces of legislation that, if it accomplishes it’s potential, that I would want to be on record in the annals of our history as someone who voted to make happen."
Senators also approved Monday:
- the re-nominations of Gordon Finch and Cassan Pancham to the V.I. Port Authority governing board;
- resolutions honoring and commending the congregation and ministry of the St. Thomas Reformed Church for 350 years of service to the territory, along with the Rev. Algernon Diego Blyden for his contributions to the territory;
- approving the sale of 1,522 square feet of government property on Strand Street, St. Croix as part of a court settlement; and
- lease agreements between the government and Cleon H. Otto (doing business as Otto’s Glassworks) and Cool Breeze Sightseeing Tours.