A large, sometimes restless crowd focused on the future of St. John Tuesday night, with special concern for the Julius E. Sprauve School, when Gov. Kenneth Mapp held a town meeting in Cruz Bay.
Mapp arrived 45 minutes late for the meeting, apologizing and stating his intention to listen to the concerns of St. John residents. The meeting was originally to have been held at the Legislative Annex, but had to be moved to the cafeteria at Sprauve School because of the size of the turnout, which overflowed even that larger venue.
“JESS qualifies for complete demolition and construction,” Mapp said. “We have to figure out what’s best for the school. When we rebuild, we will prepare it as a shelter and put in all the infrastructure” for storm mitigation.
Mapp said the rebuilding process could take between three and five years and would be fully funded under the Stafford Act.
When a resident asked, “Where will the shelter be this hurricane season?” Mapp replied, “I don’t have an answer for that. For six of the seven schools that were shuttered, we have plans to get them up and running with modular classrooms and sprung shelters.”
Where to put those modular units quickly became a topic of controversy. Residents arriving at the school for the meeting took notice of a newly posted sign which stated, “Modular Facilities Coming Soon.” As the meeting progressed, it became clear that the government planned to put the modular classrooms on the adjacent field known as Winston Wells Ballpark.
Managed by the Department of Sports, Parks, and Recreation, the field is routinely used for physical education classes and recreation programs as the school has no gym.
After Hurricane Irma, the field became a landing site for helicopters bringing emergency responders and supplies. It held trailers and became FEMA’s main distribution site.
The field is also used for many community activities, including Carnival events, concerts, softball tournaments, revival meetings, and fundraisers for community groups.
When the audience protested the length of time the field would be unavailable for community use, Mapp said, “We’re going to have to lose space. We’re going to have to lose convenience.”
“You mean for five years we won’t have [St. John Cancer Fund’s] Light Up the Night?” asked Stacie January. “One day you say we’re going to talk about it, and then we drive by and see a sign indicating the decision has already been made for us.”
Mapp asked for other suggestions for locating the temporary modules. Several people asked about the status of the Guy Benjamin School in Coral Bay, which was closed in 2014. Commissioner of Education Sharon McCollum took the microphone and explained that the school would also require a total rebuild.
Other audience members had suggestions, including the campus of the Gifft Hill School, open space near the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Clinic in Susannaberg (which is also slated for demolition and reconstruction,) the National Park’s ball field where BBC now stores its utility vehicles, and at the Lumberyard Complex in Cruz Bay, which has been closed since the storm and will be torn down.
Audience members also asked questions about a permanent location to rebuild a new school.
“We have no fixed location. We’re not going to banter with the National Park any longer,” he said, referring to a plan that has since languished to trade land within Virgin Islands National Park boundaries to use as a school site.
Mapp tried to keep the tone positive by pointing out structures that will be rebuilt using $422 million in hazard mitigation funds, including the Myrah Keating Smith Clinic, the fire station in Cruz Bay, and a new station for police and firefighters in Coral Bay.
He spoke of the purchase of two four-megawatt generators, one for Coral Bay and one for Cruz Bay, and of plans approved by FEMA to construct a solar field on St. John. Though he did not provide details, he indicated St. John would no longer depend on power generated on St. Thomas for its energy needs. The audience clapped when he said, “Ultimately, you will be disconnected from St. Thomas.”
Issues regarding debris and waste were brought up frequently by audience members.
Josephine Roller, a farmer and the owner of the Coral Bay Garden Center, brought up the issue of the vegetative waste that could be used for mulch and compost. Mapp has stated in the past that 750,000 cubic yards of vegetative debris would be sent off island along with other waste from Hurricane Irma.
Roller said she has the land, the materials, and the know-how to convert the vegetative waste to compost, but at the town meeting, Mapp reiterated his stance.
“The quantum amount of mulch will leave the territory,” he said, adding that he was working with the Department of Agriculture to make truckloads available to farmers for free.
Several people brought up concerns about the sewage treatment plant in Cruz Bay which has become overloaded at times, emitting a foul odor. A spokeswoman for the Waste Management Authority assured the audience that it had the capability to successfully manage the plant.
Mapp explained that he was late to the town meeting because he was holding discussions with St. John trash haulers.
“We’ve had six or seven times as much household waste since the storm. We’re planning roadside pick-up through August because of the [debris generated by] the rebuilding programs.”
When one person asked, “Why hasn’t all the debris been cleaned up? Why isn’t the school debris gone?” Mapp repeated, “I don’t have an answer for that. It’s a problem on all three islands. Susannaberg [waste transfer station] is packed. Our entire system was overwhelmed. We’re trying to expand our capacity.”
Mapp said that the Department of Public Works is ordering $1.5 million of heavy equipment, but audience members said equipment alone wasn’t enough to solve the problem.
“I’ve heard there are only seven people at Public Works on St. John,” said Theodora Moorehead, adding that there was no one on St. John who had authority to make decisions. “Who’s in charge? In the past we had our own deputy commissioner for St. John.”
When Mapp replied, “My administrators are empowered to make decisions,” the audience jeered. Several cabinet members sat on the stage during the town meeting, including the commissioners for Health, Police, and Agriculture, but they weren’t asked to speak.
Caribbean National Parks Superintendent Randy Levasseur and several senators also attended but didn’t participate.
Audience members had questions about the economy.
“I’m concerned about the survival and participation of local people, their ability to make a living and have affordable housing,” said former Senator Robert O’Conner Jr. “They should have access to the economic recovery.”
Mapp replied that he was committed to working with contractors who use the local workforce and filling government positions with island residents. He mentioned the upcoming career fairs on May 29 at UVI’s Sports and Fitness Center on St. Thomas and the DC Canegata Recreation Center on St. Croix.
The governor also mentioned recent efforts to raise the base salaries for police officers and said negotiations were underway to raise the starting salaries for teachers.
“The hiring freeze will be thawed. We’re working with the American Federation of Teachers. We must do the same for nurses, fire fighters, and correction officers.”
When asked what he planned to do to stabilize the Government Employees Retirement System, Mapp said he was working on a plan to repay the system what the government owed.
“In three or four weeks, I will make an announcement of a private sector development,” he said. Revenues from that initiative will be used to stabilize the system.
Mapp also said he had been invited to meet with the owner of Caneel Bay. The upscale resort shut down after the hurricane and is now seeking to extend its contract with the National Park through federal legislation before the resort commits to rebuilding.
“We want those 375 jobs back. If the owner is prepared to make the investment, I might be persuaded to join the bandwagon,” Mapp said.
His remark, “I will express to him how disappointed I was with how they treated their employees,” won applause from the audience.
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