A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
While executive officials and senators methodically plough their way through the 457-page 2017 proposed budget, department by department, examining and cross-examining every decimal and dollar sign, let’s take a look at a section that often gets no more than a glance.
The “Miscellaneous Request” has grown over the years from a couple of pages tacked on at the end of the executive departments and agencies, to a list of more than 200 line items.
While it once consisted primarily of small appropriations to non-profit organizations or limited special programs within a department, it now includes expenses you might not consider “miscellaneous” at all, like $37.4 million for health insurance for government retirees, coming through the Personnel department.
There’s also $2.25 million for “additional critical vacancies” assigned to the Office of Management and Budget.
Assigned from the Department of Planning and Natural Resources is $400,000 for the “Tutu Well Litigation Site.” That’s the same amount appropriated in 2016 and just slightly less than in 2015. And, yes, it’s for the ongoing clean-up of the contaminated aquifer.
The problem was identified in the 1980s, though one school of thought holds that it actually began as much as 20 years before that. No one knows how many residents drank and/or bathed in the polluted water, but water haulers supplied people across St. Thomas from Tutu wells – ironically, at one time it was considered better tasting than the water coming from the Water and Power Authority. And no one can prove that it increased cancer rates as the health experts suspect because the Virgin Islands didn’t have a cancer registry prior to the problem surfacing.
After years of investigations and court proceedings, in 2003 the V.I. government made a settlement of a consent decree with two of the many companies the federal Environmental Protection Agency said were responsible. Texaco Caribbean Inc. paid almost $3.2 million, and Esso Standard Oil $6.1 million, for a total of $9.3 million.
In 2013, after nine years of cleanup, the EPA handed the project over to DPNR, saying one of two contaminated underground plumes was 95 percent clean and the other was 50 percent clean. According to testimony at last year’s budget hearings, the department is paying a contractor, Arrowhead Contracting Inc., and “the scope of work includes pumping and treatment of contaminated ground water” which is then discharged into existing drainage systems. The work is expected to continue for 20 to 30 years.” So, $400,000 by 30 would be … $12 million.
While some of the items included under “Miscellaneous” are surprises, there also are some things that seem to be missing.
The 2015 budget contained a $606,881 miscellaneous appropriation (coming from the Finance Department) for the Casino Control Commission. In 2016, the appropriation was $600,000. The column headed “2017” is blank.
Contacted about the omission, the commission’s executive director, Violet Anne Golden, at first said she would make her case directly to the Legislature. Then she amended that to say the commission had submitted a request to OMB and “we will find out where our documents got lost in the shuffle.”
Wherever they are, Golden is asking for more funding than in previous years.
“Our staff totals for FY 2017 to date is $781,000 because of the hiring of new inspectors when the casino opened.”
Casino gaming brings in more than $300 million in revenues, she said, and the commission charged with regulating the industry gets only a small percentage of that. “We are asking for a change in this formula.”
Also not in the Miscellaneous Request is money to continue the Permanent Supportive Housing program, Home at Last, which is overseen by the Department of Human Services and administered by Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands.
Started two years ago, the program aims to bring chronically homeless individuals back into society, providing them their own apartment and a team of professionals to assist with job counseling, substance abuse prevention, health care and any other necessary services. The cost is several hundred thousand dollars annually.
Andrea Shillingford, CCVI executive director, said she met with DHS personnel last week and was told there was no money in the proposed executive budget for the program, but that the department would lobby senators to include it.
“It’s very disturbing that it would not be in the budget,” Shillingford said.
“We have some in the program who’ve been on the streets for over 20 years,” she said.
Currently there are 27 participants, all of them formerly living on the street and now living in apartments.
“We have others we could house, but because of the uncertainty of the funding, we cannot do it.”
The program has been successful already in providing better physical and mental health care for participants, she said.
If there is no funding for fiscal year 2017, which starts Oct. 1, “we’d have to take all these people out of their apartments and put them back on the street,” she said. “It would be a total negative impact on the community” in general, as well as a blow to the participants, the program staff and the landlords.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” she said.
Also missing from the Miscellaneous Request are appropriations for the three carnival-type events, Christmas Carnival on St. Croix, the Festival and Cultural Organization on St. John, and the V.I. Carnival, St. Thomas. In both 2015 and 2016, there were appropriations of $245,000 from the Department of Tourism for each of the events. There is nothing included in 2017.
There is, however, $250,000 from Tourism for the Centennial Commission for the commemoration of the 1917 transfer of the islands from Denmark to the U.S.