Legal Services of the Virgin Islands needs $200,000 more than budgeted for Fiscal Year 2014 to meet expenses, but much more to really do its job of providing legal services for the indigent in civil court, Executive Director Richard Austin said during budget hearings Friday.
The 501c3 private charity better known as LSVI provides free legal services in civil court for clients who cannot afford to hire attorneys themselves. The government must provide attorneys to those who cannot afford one in criminal cases, but not in civil cases such as landlord-tenant disputes and victims of scams. Legal Services fills that gap.
Legal Services is not part of the government, but it receives some government funding so it must appear and defend that funding during the legislative budget process.
In 2013, LSVI’s total budget was originally $1.5 million, with $1 million from the government, $306,000 from the federal Legal Services Corporation and $155,000 from the Law Enforcement Planning Commission. Similar amounts were expected for this coming year, but the LSC funds were cut by 51 percent and they have received no LEPC funds, he said.
In their original budget submittal to the administration, LSVI requested $1.13 million from the General fund, and Gov. John deJongh Jr. included that sum in the FY14 budget, Austin said. But with the loss of these other funds, "we still find ourselves in a deficit of approximately $200,000," he said, requesting a $1.3 million General Fund appropriation.
Austin recounted a litany of difficulties faced by indigent clients and by the LSVI in trying to serve them. It has trouble hiring and retaining attorneys because it cannot offer attractive salaries, must turn away many who ask for assistance and cannot devote enough resources to the cases it does take on, he said.
"What would your ideal budget look like?" asked Sen. Judi Buckley.
Austin replied "about $3 to $4 million."
Of the governor’s recommended $1.1 million General Fund appropriation, $579,000 is for wages and salaries. Another $175,000 is for employer contributions to Medicare, Social Security and benefits. "Other services and charges" comprise $306,000, utilities another $35,000 and supplies $11,000.
No votes were taken during the budget hearing.
Afterwards, the Finance Committee took testimony on a bill aimed at clarifying V.I. law regarding what types of property transfers are exempt from stamp tax on the transaction. The committee voted unanimously to hold the bill in committee for further testimony and amendment. All members were present.