Public Works will likely be getting an array of unused digging equipment and material leftover from the construction of the territory’s federally financed V.I. Next Generation Network, thanks to legislative action to authorize their donation by viNGN.
The network was funded by more than $100 million in federal grants, matched by $30 million in local bond funding authorized by the Legislature.
The haul is four Bobcat small loaders; six Anderson trailers; four ditch witch trenchers, two ditch witch vacuums, four mini excavators and four air compressors. The equipment was new and unused but had been in storage for several years. It has an assessed value of about $1 million.
During initial committee hearings, Public Works Commissioner Gustav James testified in support of the bill, saying the machinery will be very useful.
Thursday, the Rules and Judiciary Committee sent the uncontroversial item on for final Senate approval.
Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly criticized viNGN, saying viNGN "admitted this equipment was purchased but never used."
"It is unfortunate that what has happened with viNGN took place," O’Reilly said. She said the money would have been better spent on "computers or education."
O’Reilly has been a vocal critic of viNGN since at least April of 2014, when the Senate initially passed legislation she introduced to expand the types of businesses receiving RTPark tax breaks. After Gov. John deJongh vetoed the measure, O’Reilly said the administration was trying to force local Internet providers to use the new, state-of-the-art, government-owned fiberoptic network.
"There is an objective that is very dark and scary," O’Reilly said at the time. (See: RTPark Claims: ‘Clarify’ Rules or Puerto Rico Will Take All the Clients in Related Links below)
The Senate ultimately overrode the governor’s veto to enact the expanded RTPark tax breaks.
Several senators said they agreed that the money could have been better spent on computers or more education, if the grants in question allowed that.
"Let’s be mindful that there was some waste … and it could have been better spent educating our community," Sen. Novelle Francis said.
Sen. Justin Harrigan said he agreed "but at the same time it is already there and we will put it to good use."
There are currently more public computer centers than personnel to operate and keep them open. Numerous public computer centers were built in public housing communities, public libraries and government agencies throughout the territory as part of the broadband project. Right now, centers located in public housing are operating on "limited hours" due to a lack of paid personnel and the V.I. Housing Authority is seeking resident volunteers to mind them, so that their hours can be increased, V.I. Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham said at an Oct. 6 Finance Committee hearing.
The committee also sent on legislation to ask the governor to join the Legislature in developing a comprehensive education and awareness program on the contributions of people of African descent, to participate in the United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent. [Bill 31-0079]
Sen. Myron Jackson, the bill’s sponsor, spoke of the historical importance of people of African descent to the territory and the wider Caribbean, and their common historical ties.
While he voted for the bill, which was sent on without opposition, Sen. Jean Forde raised concerns that "the bill does not identify the entity charged with implementation and does not identify the funding." Jackson responded that it had been amended to utilize existing funding, and said there was existing funding for cultural education that could be used.
Another bill sent on will allow the V.I. Water and Power Authority to close a portion of a beat-up road adjacent to the V.I. Water and Power Authority’s St. Croix plant in Estate Richmond, to increase safety and security at the plant. The bill, sponsored by Francis at the request of WAPA, would give the authority, with consent from the departments of Police, Public Works and Property and Procurement, to close "a portion of Route 752 between Par 6 and 11B 4 and C adjacent to the former Richmond Penitentiary in Christiansted." The affected road runs east to west, parallel to the shore, just south of WAPA and the recently condemned and emptied LBJ public housing community.
Lastly, a bill approved Thursday, [Bill No.31-0130], sponsored by Gittens and Francis, will require the Bureau of Correction and the Department of Human Services, which maintains the Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix and other detention centers, to have secured firearm storage facilities and require personnel to use them instead of leaving firearms at home or in a vehicle. The bill also allows Corrections and YRC to have "nonlethal" weapons, such as tasers or pepper spray, to help maintain order and for self protection. Francis proposed an amendment that defined "nonlethal weapons," which the committee approved before sending the bill on for final approval.
All the bills were approved without opposition. Voting yes on each bill were: Francis, Gittens, Forde, Harrigan and O’Reilly. Sens. Neville James and Janette Millin Young were absent.