When the economy turns sour, the V.I. Department of Human Services gets even busier, yet it has to manage to provide more services with fewer resources, the Senate Committee on Finance was told Tuesday.
"The current economic doldrums does not mean a slowdown in need," DHS Commissioner Christopher Finch told the Senate panel Tuesday morning at the Fritz E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room in Frederiksted. He was one of three department heads who testified before the panel Tuesday.
The Department of Human Services handles a range of 63 programs that affects a huge portion of the territory’s population – from child care to senior programs. Administering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps) pumps millions of dollars into the local economy and provides assistance to thousands in the territory, Finch said.
And the department does it with fewer resources than it had just two years ago, he added. And with uncertainty about the direction of federal deficit-cutting talks, a degree of anxiety hovers over the program.
The budget calls for a General Fund appropriation of $51.7 million, a 2.3 percent drop from the $54 million appropriated in the current budget. Finch also requested $1 million from the Crisis Intervention Fund, re-granted to nonprofits; an estimated $1 million from the Pharmaceutical Assistance Fund to pay for medications for needy seniors; $350,000 for the Home for Aged Revolving Fund, comprised of fees paid by nursing home residents.
The remainder of local funding includes $1.5 million from the Miscellaneous Budget for the Energy Crisis Assistance Program, $500,000 from the Miscellaneous Budget for therapeutic foster care and $550,000 for the purchase of beds at Seaview for long-term elderly care. In all, the Department needs $57.3 million in local funding.
He also requested that the Senate approve a lump-sum budget for the department as it used to do traditionally. The department handles many programs and expenditures on an emergency basis, he said, and when the budget is allocated on a line-item basis, it lacks the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances quickly.
Human Services employs 965 staff members, of which 423 are paid by federal funds, Finch said.
“The work that is done every day through the department opens doors, provides ladders out of crisis, fights poverty and changes lives," Finch said.
Also presenting their budgets Tuesday were Legal Services and the Office of Collective Bargaining.
Collective Bargaining is one of the smaller units of the V.I. government, but it serves an important role year-round, said Valdemar Hill Jr., chief negotiator for the V.I. government.
Hill said the agency facilitates the relationships between the V.I. government and thousands of its employees through the process of collective bargaining. OCB negotiates on behalf of executive departments with 15 labor organizations, representing 7,200 government employees, and also plays an important role in forming the government’s labor policies.
Hill requested 2012 funding of $639,642, a cut of more than 10 percent from the previous year.
The V.I. government is currently a party to 30 Collective Bargaining Agreements that have been negotiated by OCB, half of which are current. The other CBAs are extended on a day-to-day basis by consent of the parties, Hill told members of the Finance Committee.
Hill told senators OCB can fully operate within its scope as long as funding is not further cut.
This past year, OCB reached new agreements with law enforcement supervisors, corrections officers, firefighters and other essential government employees, Hill said, although he pointed out that the territory’s dire financial condition has postponed implementation of some of the salary increases negotiated into the pay plans.
Legal Services of the Virgin Islands (LSVI) provides civil legal assistance to low-income, elderly and other disadvantaged V.I. residents, Hill said. It is also the only V.I. agency that provides free civil legal assistance to eligible clients.
LSVI is a public interest law firm and known as the “Equal Justice Advocate” in the Virgin Islands, governed by a 15-member board. Two thirds of its budget comes from the V.I. General Fund, and the other third from a federal agency, the Legal Services Corp. That agency has been reducing its funding recently, he added.
The Legal Services budget approved for the 2010 fiscal year called for $ 997,421 from the General Fund, but was reduced to $900,000. This year’s budget request is $1 million.
No action was taken during the information-gathering session.