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NOAA: Broadband Plan Needs More Staff, Control of Funds

Hiring additional staff and putting in place more documented financial controls were two of the main recommendations in a federal administrative audit discussed Friday by V.I. Next Generation Network board members during an emergency meeting on St. Thomas.

The V.I. Next Generation Network oversees the territory’s broadband initiative, which is being funded in large part by a series of federal grants through the National Telecommunication Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). At Friday’s meeting, viNGN board chairman Gov. John deJongh Jr. said that the broadband initiative is subject to a grants administrative audit, which was conducted in June.

A letter outlining the findings was submitted to viNGN’s parent company, the Public Finance Authority, on Aug. 31 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and deJongh said Friday that he called the emergency session to respond to their call for a corrective action plan, and to put together a team to develop one.

"They want more procedures in place and more personnel, so there’s more of a separation of functions, and that’s what we’re going to start doing," deJongh said. "In addition to responding to what viNGN is doing, what we have done here is that the board has authorized the finding of a search firm to be able to find more technical staff in the financial area and also in technology."

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The viNGN currently has three employees, board members said.

DeJongh said the team will be made up of viNGN President Julito Francis, along with the agency’s representatives from Winston and Strawn, Kleeger & Kleeger, and consultants 3P Inc. The PFA, through Executive Director Angel Dawson, will also be involved, and will work on developing a corrective action plan that can be submitted to NOAA by the "middle to end of this month," he said.

"The grants that we’ve through NTIA are of course extremely important to our economic development but also to putting in place an infrastructure that we think is important for residents and businesses, and we take it extremely seriously, and that’s why we’ve been responsive immediately after we’ve received this letter," deJongh said.

The letter from NOAA Grants Management Division Director Arlene Simpson Porter said that during a site visit in June, a team from NTIA identified "programmatic, financial and grants management deficiencies."

"Addressing these issues quickly and comprehensively is essential to ensuring that the grant-funded projects are compliant with award terms and conditions, are completed on time, and are able to deliver the benefits described in the final award agreement," the letter said.

The letter also says that the NTIA has recommended that NOAA suspend viNGN’s grant for a comprehensive community infrastructure (or broadband network) if the requirements of the action plan are not carried out. DeJongh made it clear that this is only a recommendation and the viNGN is taking the necessary steps to correct the issues.

Other specific recommendations from NOAA are for the viNGN to provide a more detailed organizational chart outlining the roles and responsibilities of current and future viNGN and PFA staff associated with the project; a detailed list of staff in the PFA authorized to make draw-down requests; and a plan to show how program income will be incorporated into the project.

Board members participating in the meeting were Alfred Boschulte, deJongh, Hugo Hodge Jr., Peter Schultz and Douglas Woodhead.

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Hiring additional staff and putting in place more documented financial controls were two of the main recommendations in a federal administrative audit discussed Friday by V.I. Next Generation Network board members during an emergency meeting on St. Thomas.

The V.I. Next Generation Network oversees the territory's broadband initiative, which is being funded in large part by a series of federal grants through the National Telecommunication Information Administration's (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). At Friday's meeting, viNGN board chairman Gov. John deJongh Jr. said that the broadband initiative is subject to a grants administrative audit, which was conducted in June.

A letter outlining the findings was submitted to viNGN's parent company, the Public Finance Authority, on Aug. 31 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and deJongh said Friday that he called the emergency session to respond to their call for a corrective action plan, and to put together a team to develop one.

"They want more procedures in place and more personnel, so there's more of a separation of functions, and that's what we're going to start doing," deJongh said. "In addition to responding to what viNGN is doing, what we have done here is that the board has authorized the finding of a search firm to be able to find more technical staff in the financial area and also in technology."

The viNGN currently has three employees, board members said.

DeJongh said the team will be made up of viNGN President Julito Francis, along with the agency's representatives from Winston and Strawn, Kleeger & Kleeger, and consultants 3P Inc. The PFA, through Executive Director Angel Dawson, will also be involved, and will work on developing a corrective action plan that can be submitted to NOAA by the "middle to end of this month," he said.

"The grants that we've through NTIA are of course extremely important to our economic development but also to putting in place an infrastructure that we think is important for residents and businesses, and we take it extremely seriously, and that's why we've been responsive immediately after we've received this letter," deJongh said.

The letter from NOAA Grants Management Division Director Arlene Simpson Porter said that during a site visit in June, a team from NTIA identified "programmatic, financial and grants management deficiencies."

"Addressing these issues quickly and comprehensively is essential to ensuring that the grant-funded projects are compliant with award terms and conditions, are completed on time, and are able to deliver the benefits described in the final award agreement," the letter said.

The letter also says that the NTIA has recommended that NOAA suspend viNGN's grant for a comprehensive community infrastructure (or broadband network) if the requirements of the action plan are not carried out. DeJongh made it clear that this is only a recommendation and the viNGN is taking the necessary steps to correct the issues.

Other specific recommendations from NOAA are for the viNGN to provide a more detailed organizational chart outlining the roles and responsibilities of current and future viNGN and PFA staff associated with the project; a detailed list of staff in the PFA authorized to make draw-down requests; and a plan to show how program income will be incorporated into the project.

Board members participating in the meeting were Alfred Boschulte, deJongh, Hugo Hodge Jr., Peter Schultz and Douglas Woodhead.