Bills that would fund repairs for deteriorating roads and push the government’s territory-wide broadband initiative forward were signed into law Thursday by Gov. John deJongh Jr., along with sections of a lengthy omnibus bill that edged through this week’s full Senate session.
In a letter to Senate President Louis P. Hill along with the bills, deJongh said the territory has already received more than $65 million from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Broadband Technology Program (BTOP) that would help the government design and implement a "critical component of our telecommunications infrastructure." The governor said the proposed network would help with future "economic diversification" and provide local Internet users more efficient and reliable connectivity.
The bill gives the Public Finance Authority, or a wholly owned subsidiary of the PFA, the authorization it needs to use federal stimulus funds or bond proceeds to build out and run the network. During Monday’s Senate session, PFA head Julito Francis explained that legislative approval was necessary in order for the authority to front the money needed to cover a local match and operations costs for the first six months.
The PFA board has established a wholly owned subsidiary of the PFA called the V.I. Next Generation Network (VINGN) charged with implementing and operating the broadband assets 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.
VINGN’s composition was finalized during a PFA board meeting Wednesday, with the seven slots being filled by the existing PFA board members — Gov. John deJongh Jr., Debra Gottlieb, Angel Dawson, Keith O’Neale and Pablo O’Neil — along with Francis and V.I. Water and Power Authority head Hugo Hodge Jr.
The board also authorized the use of $3.5 million from its Project and Administration account as interim funding for the local match and VINGN startup up costs for the next six months.
Steady rain from a rapid succession of storms has had the government looking into a number of options for funding to fix badly damaged roads. While three presidential disaster declarations — the most recent of which was awarded this week — has made public assistance funding available for the territory, officials have, in the meantime, also turned to the Senate for an authorization of up to $8.2 million to do some immediate repairs in both districts.
The bill, which the governor also signed into law Thursday, allows the Public Works commissioner to use any existing road funds — such as money appropriated for projects that have yet to get off the ground — to begin the repairs, resurface roads and build retaining walls or drainage structures.
A third bill — an omnibus that came to the floor late during Monday’s Senate session — was also signed into law, but several of the sections were line-itemed vetoed because they contained appropriations that the territory’s coffers could not currently support.
DeJongh said that he approved a majority of the bill’s sections, several of which members of his financial team lobbied for Monday as amendments to the fiscal year 2011 budget, including, among other things:
- appropriating $1.5 million to Waste Management Authority for solid waste and wastewater management on St. John ($225,000 of which must be used by Public Works for roadside maintenance and $1.2 million for the operation of the St. John wastewater plan and disposal/transportation of solid waste from St. John);
- authorizing Planning and Natural Resources and the V.I. Police Department to pay nearly $214,000 worth of outstanding obligations to Bronx Communications;
- authorizing the Education Department to pay parking for teachers who live on St. Thomas but travel t to St. John for work;
- waiving any interest or penalties on property tax assessments from fiscal years 2006 through 2008 for "six months after the date of issuance of the respective tax year’s assessment;"
- appropriating $3 million from the interest earned on debt service reserves to the V.I. Legislature for capital projects and repairs at the St. Croix Legislature building, the replacement of damaged Senate vehicles, construction of a new offices on St. John and extra costs from the ongoing asbestos mitigation project on St. Thomas;
- clarifying sections of the new anti-smoking law that define "enclosed spaces" and paring down penalties proscribed for smoking violations (in his letter to Hill, the governor urged senators to continue to listen to concerns about the bill as it begins to be implemented, and prepare for additional amendments, if necessary);
- amending the Uniform Probate and Uniform Power of Attorney acts already signed into law, including extending their implementation dates to July 1, 2011;
- putting back in some deleted employee positions at Education and Licensing and Consumer Affairs;
- covering the government’s share of contributions to the Government Employees’ Retirement System for specific agencies, such as Education; and
- using 100 percent of Stamp Tax revenues earmarked for the V.I. Housing Finance Authority in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 to cover some of the budget appropriations.
Cautioning against overspending, deJongh line-item vetoed several appropriations he said were made against funds that were already "overburdened," such as the Internal Revenue Matching Fund and the interest earned on debt service reserves account. Among the appropriations that got the axe Friday was $350,000 to the Fifth Constitutional Convention for a public education campaign.
In his letter to Hill, deJongh wrote that there is also no finalized draft constitution available for public review, so it would be premature, at this point, to "expend scarce resources at such an interim phase" in the process.