The Office of the Territorial Public Defender, the most generously funded of the four entities that presented their Fiscal Year 2017 budgets before the Legislature on Wednesday, is not requesting a budget increase, Chief Public Defender Samuel L. Joseph said.
"In light of the dire financial state of the (V.I. government), the (office) is not requesting any increase in funding. We only ask that you continue to support the important work we do," Joseph said.
The V.I. government is projecting an $110 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year, which it’s planning fill by new borrowing and refinancing existing debt. (See Link: Mapp Hoping to Balance 2017 Budget with Borrowing, Increased Collections)
Gov. Kenneth Mapp has recommended a lump sum of $4.5 million be paid to the Public Defender’s Office from the General Fund, the same amount that the autonomous agency received in its FY16 appropriation.
The job of the Public Defender’s Office is to represent indigent criminal defendants appearing before the Superior and Supreme Courts of the Virgin Islands. Joseph said this amounts to a majority of cases charged before the Virgin Islands judiciary.
He testified that the office’s current caseload consists of 825 cases territorywide. With a staff of 12 attorneys, Joseph said, the work of the office can sometimes feel like “an insurmountable task,” one that is meant for “true believers.”
"I am not naive to the general perception that persons charged with a crime committed the crime or that the OTPD is the agency that helps criminals ‘get out of jail,’” said Joseph.
“That viewpoint is a gross misunderstanding of what the OTPD does. We are protectors of the indigent, the less fortunate, those that do not have the ability to protect themselves. We are defenders of rights not only for our clients but also our community."
An entity with a similar task to Public Defender’s Office, the nonprofit Legal Services of the Virgin Islands also presented its budget request Wednesday.
Legal Services describes itself as a provider of “effective, efficient, and high-quality, civil legal assistance to low income, elderly and other disadvantaged residents of the Virgin Islands.” It receives funding from not only the federal and local governments, but also from United Way and Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts funds.
The agency requested an FY17 budget of $1,368,331 appropriated from the General Fund, which is $284,331 more than the amount recommended by the governor.
"This sum will allow us to maintain the status quo, our present level of service delivery," said Legal Services Executive Director Richard Austin.
Sen. Clifford Graham, chairman of the 31st Legislature’s Committee on Finance, said he appreciated the importance of what Legal Services does in the territory and will do everything in his power to get the nonprofit the extra funding it is requesting, which is mostly for personnel costs.
Also presenting budgets Wednesday were the Public Employees Relations Board, an independent government board that helps government employers and employees resolve labor issues, and the Virgin Islands Labor Management Committee, a nonprofit that promotes the improvement of labor management relations through programs, lectures, seminars, outreach, and publications.
The PERB requested budget, which has remained the same for the last four years, is the same as the governor’s recommended amount of $1,106,370. The board is being funded this cycle by the General Fund instead of its usual source, the Union Arbitration Fund.
The Labor Management Committee is requesting $180,088 for its FY17 budget, slightly more than the governor’s recommendation of $175,000.
No votes were taken during Wednesday’s information gathering budget hearing. Present were Sens. Graham, Kurt Vialet, Marvin Blyden, Myron Jackson and Positive Nelson.