Helping ensure St. Croix school buses do not stop running again this fiscal year, the Senate Finance Committee approved Education’s request to transfer $2.4 million from budget line items for personnel costs, materials, and supplies, with $1.4 million for busing and $1 million for maintenance.
Abramson Inc., the school bus company owned by former Public Works Commissioner Ann Abramson, stopped running school buses April 30 and May 1 because the department had fallen $628,000 behind on a nearly $4 million bus service contract. The company notified Education roughly two weeks earlier it was behind on its payments, but did not say it would cut off service until the morning of April 30, Education officials said in Senate hearings at the time. Service resumed May 2, after some payments were made to Abramson Inc.
This transfer, along with separate legislation coming soon that would reprogram $2 million currently allocated to setting up a longitudinal data system, will pay bus service through the rest of the fiscal year, V.I. Management and Budget Director Debra Gottlieb said. Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry testified at an early hearing the work on the data system would not occur this year anyway, so those funds could be replaced at a later point.
If Education had something closer to a lump sum budget, the cash shortfall that led to the stopping of bus service could have more readily been avoided, Gottlieb said several times during the hearing. Especially during a severe fiscal crisis, such as the V.I. government has been facing, having to regularly formulate appropriation transfers and come back to the Legislature again and again hamstrings the government, Gottlieb added. A lump sum budget would give Education more flexibility to move resources where they are needed, she said. Commissioner Terry made the same point in hearings earlier this month, and Gottlieb has emphasized this viewpoint again and again over the course of several years.
Senators, meanwhile, have not been sympathetic to lump sum budgeting, which would take some oversight and control out of the hands of the Legislature.
Voting to approve the appropriation transfer were Sens. Louis Patrick Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Janette Millin-Young, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, Sammuel Sanes, Celestino White and Carlton "Ital" Dowe. The vote was unanimous.
Finance also approved a $58,000 transfer within the V.I. National Guard’s budget. The VING plans to take funds from personnel and spend $44,000 on an extension of the parking lot at the Gramboko Building for customers of the St. Thomas Post-Exchange store and $14,000 to settle an outstanding settlement owed by the V.I. National Guard. The parking lot work will require an additional $168,000, which the Guard will be requesting in its 2013 budget, V.I. National Guard Adjutant General Renaldo Rivera testified to the committee.
The $14,000 is to pay a court settlement of $7,000 each to two individuals who alleged they were injured during a "Boys to Men Boot Camp" held by Speak the Word Ministry at the Lionel Jackson Readiness Center on St. Croix in 2005, Rivera said.
The committee approved the appropriation unanimously. Hill was absent at the time of the vote.
In other business, the Finance Committee also held a bill to require the Finance Department to conduct audits of government telephone and Internet accounts. Rivera-O’Reilly, the bill’s sponsor, requested the committee hold the bill for further amendment, after hearing testimony that Finance may not be in the best position to perform that function.