Meeting with various U.S. officials over the last week could bring in more money to the territory for transportation, safety and local environmental efforts, but Gov. Kenneth Mapp said Tuesday that the first step for the V.I. government is to streamline its procurement system so the federal funds can be spent “timely.”
“We seriously spend a lot of time chasing paper,” Mapp said during a press conference on St. Thomas Tuesday. The first stop on Mapp’s recent tour was a meeting with Esther Kia’aina, assistant secretary of Insular Affairs for the Interior Department, who will help the territory get the process started by sending a technical team from Interior along with a team from its government services division to work with Property and Procurement.
Currently the local agency is operating on a completely manual system, but the goal is to get it automated and “fine tuned” enough to give it the ability to process and spend federal funds on time, Mapp said.
Mapp said the meeting with Kia’aina was also a follow-up to Guam’s recent climate change summit, with discussions focusing on how the territory can access $7 million available for “vulnerability assessments” and other related efforts. Mapp said the U.S. government will turn Guam into a major Marine Corps hub with significant investment in troops and money over the next seven years and, because of this partnership, is more willing to look at the Virgin Islands’ issues.
To make sure that the territory is able to transition from paving roads to “digging roads up” and putting in the proper infrastructure, Mapp said the government is going after more in federal Highway and Transportation funds, which he hopes to increase to $75 million a year.
Mapp said he and Public Works Commissioner Gustav James recently met with acting Federal Highway Administration administrator Greg Nadeau to talk over strategies for bringing in more money and giving the territory access to an extra pool of funds made available by FHWA each August for “shovel ready projects.”
“The $60 million a year made available to the Virgin Islands is not going to get us much in terms of transportation improvement,” Mapp said Tuesday. “We need a funding allotment that’s equal to one half or not less than $75 million per year of the smallest allocation on the mainland. We’re seeking $75 million as a baseline.”
According to Mapp, the smallest allocation of federal highway funds on the mainland goes to Washington, D.C., at $136 million a year.
Leaving the nation’s capital for New York, Mapp said his team then sat down with New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton for intense strategy meetings on everything from how to manage department resources to how to handle crime scenes.
In the “immediate future,” Mapp said officers in the territory that have less than seven years in the department will be sent off for six months of training with NYPD recruits, while investigators in the criminal investigations divisions will also be sent to New York to learn “the entire crime investigation process,” including the handling of forensic evidence and processing a crime scene.
The long-term goal, Mapp added, is to set up a forensic lab in the territory, instead of continuing the practice of having crime scene evidence processed off-island.
Technology within the V.I. Police Department will also be stepped up so that relevant information can be given to officers before they arrive on a crime scene, while the government will also be working with the University of the Virgin Islands to reestablish a partnership with John Jay College of Criminal Justice so that more training can be provided to aspiring officers. Mapp said he is looking to pair the training with increases in pay for officers as an incentive to further their education.
“Training, training and more training is vital to our needs and goal of creating a safe community,” he said.
The local Planning and Natural Resources Department was designated a "high-risk grantee" by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in August 2013 after an Office of Inspector General Audit spotlighted funding discrepancies within the agency. Mapp said improvements have been ongoing and now the agency is no longer at risk of losing its federal grant funds.
“The EPA no longer wishes to consider the withdrawal of money from DPNR,” Mapp said Tuesday, when talking about his recent visit with Environmental Protection Agency Region II Director Judith Enk. “Given the change in the processes, and the transparency of the technical staff, they have been able to work with DPNR on a path forward.
Two “chunks” of money that could help the territory with its water infrastructure and wastewater systems are also available. Mapp said he and Enk spoke about continuing to make the federal funds available so that the government could begin replacing public water lines – many of which Mapp said were rusty and delivering brown water – and work with V.I. Waste Management Authority on wastewater issues.
While VIWMA’s director is off-island, Mapp said he would soon be appointing new members to the authority’s board of directors and will begin meeting with them on how to spend the money.
Mapp also announced that the government will be going after Terminix for issues relating to the May 2015 Sirenusa chemical poisoning incident, which resulted in the hospitalization four Delaware residents vacationing on St. John.
Mapp said three members of the family are still in critical condition, and while they have chosen not to file charges at this point, Terminix will be facing “civil penalties” and will be “charged criminally,” while the government moves to seek “recompense” for issues on-island and helping the federal government with its case.
“The company must be held responsible,” Mapp said.
ObamaCare and Local Health Insurance
Last week, a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the continuance of government subsidies for Americans buying health insurance through federal exchanges created through the Affordable Health Care Act, or ObamaCare initiative. Because of the ruling, Mapp said Tuesday that the V.I. government will be looking into creating such an exchange in the territory and what it would take to put the Health Department, hospitals and local doctors on the “technological platform to have full and unfettered access” to it.
“If the model extends to the Virgin Islands, we can see a 20 percent reduction in premiums and those with no insurance can have access to health care,” Mapp said. “It is important that we do all that is necessary to get ourselves as close as the law permits to the Affordable Care Act.”
Lt. Gov. Osbert Potter, whose office oversees the banking and insurance industries in the territory, said his office has also been in talks with a “specific company” that is interested in providing individual health policies to nongovernment residents.
“We are making serious progress,” Potter said during the press conference. “We have been going between that company and V.I. Equicare and are confident in the near future that we are going to have them on board providing health insurance to the people of the Virgin Islands.”