Budget Cuts Hurting V.I. Health, Education

Those Virgin Islanders most in need will keep having limited access to mental health and dental care, and students will see classrooms without teachers this fall, unless the territory finds more money, the Education and Health departments told senators during budget hearings Tuesday.

The territory’s revenues have not rebounded fully from the 2008 recession and the closure of the Hovensa refinery, leading to multiple back-to-back years of steep budget cuts, straining agencies that were not problem-free before the recession.

Courts, the Fire Department and other agencies have all said they need more funding to operate properly, as they came before the Finance Committee in June to discuss their operating budgets for the upcoming year. Education and Health joined that chorus Tuesday, testifying about the loss of real, measurable services to large numbers of Virgin Islanders and V.I. students trying to succeed facing classes without teachers.

Teachers are retiring in large numbers and more and more are leaving the profession within five years of starting, Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum told the committee. Low salaries, budget cuts and other factors have led to teacher and nurse shortages. To fill the gaps, Education has been relying more on substitute teachers, which are paid out of funding for vacant positions. But there is no funding for vacancies this year.

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"Since the vacancies are zero funded, hiring substitutes and nurses to provide services will be a huge challenge. If conditions remain the same, it can be anticipated that many classrooms may not have a teacher in the upcoming school year," McCollum said.

McCollum asked for supplemental funding for hiring, to replace out-of-date computers and for school maintenance.

Senate President Neville James and other senators were sympathetic to the school system’s budget needs and said they would try to find funding. Some, including Sen. Jean Forde, said they would not approve any cuts in education funding.

The Education Department is the single largest V.I. budget expense, making it difficult to cut spending overall without cutting Education.

Sen. Novelle Francis asked Health Department officials about the status of the department’s mental health care.

Elsie de Nova, acting director of Mental Health for the department, said, "We are at an impasse." She explained they are stymied from doing more than they are now because they do not have the staff and do not have funding to get the staff.

The territory gets $169,000 in federal grants for mental health care and has its own local funding, but the resources and personnel fall far short of the need, according to Health officials.

Education’s budget for Fiscal Year 2016 includes $158.5 million from the V.I. General Fund, by far the largest single V.I. government agency budget, accounting for more than 20 percent of the FY16 General Fund budget. This is a $3.4 million reduction from last year and the continuation of a downward trend.

Education also expects $5 million in V.I. funding categorized under Miscellaneous.

Federal funds from grants and other sources are expected to give Education another $36.7 million, bringing its total budget to $205.1 million.

The Health Department continues to provide many crucial services, but is "stymied" from doing more by funding and staffing shortages, department officials told the committee.

Forde asked if the department was in crisis, and acting Health Commissioner Phyllis Wallace said it had been in crisis, but was beginning to come around some. "It is a little anemic," Wallace said.

Staffing and funding are serious problems, she said. "We do not have the staffing in several different areas that we need."

Sen. Kenneth Gittens asked why Health is giving its St. Croix dentists chairs to the federally funded Frederiksted Health Care clinic instead of reopening its dental clinic. The Frederiksted clinic has been the sole provider of need-based dental care on St. Croix since Health closed its clinic in 2012.

Wallace said the dental clinic closure was meant to be a temporary, stopgap measure due to budget cuts, but they have not been in a position to reopen it since.

Wallace presented the department’s budget request of $42.4 million. Of that total, $19.9 million is to come from the General Fund; $2.6 million from the Health Revolving Fund comprised of fees for services; $703,000 from other nonappropriated funds from casino taxes and federal funding through the Indirect Cost Fund; and $19.2 million, or nearly half its budget, in federal funds.

Later the committee voted to approve a $215,000 federal grant application for State Energy Program in the V.I. Energy Office. Review by the Finance Committee was a requirement of the grant proposal.

No votes were taken on budget matters during the information-gathering budget hearing.

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