Governor-elect Albert Bryan Jr. and Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett are concerned no major government infrastructure rebuilding contracts have gone out to bid as the outgoing administration of Gov. Kenneth Mapp winds down.
Bryan is in Washington, D.C. this week to meet with Plaskett, Congressional leaders and Trump Administration officials. Their concerns about reconstruction work came up during a telephone conference with reporters Tuesday. The two Democrats also talked about the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers recent decision not to extend 100 percent federal cost sharing; strings tied to hundreds of millions in disaster loans, a need for better public data on federal spending and hopes for good things with a Democratic Party majority in Congress.
“I think it’s important to note that everybody is frustrated. I’ve been talking to contractors. We don’t have bids out to repair schools and other structures. Where are these bids?” Bryan said.
He said the temporary roofing program put in place after the hurricanes of September 2017 is coming to a halt now and while there are temporary modular structures going up at the territory’s badly damaged hospitals, he is concerned about the lack of a bidding process for permanent structures.
“We haven’t had any contracts for permanent repair of our government infrastructure,” Bryan said.
Plaskett agreed, adding her office and Bryan’s team are talking with contractors.
“We are in discussion with major contractors and consultants,” she said, describing the talks as “almost a loop discussion going on among contractors, the federal government as well as the local government.”
But she said project worksheets for federally-funded permanent infrastructure work have not been submitted to the federal government yet.
“So yes, the temporary modules for the schools are in place. But we still don’t have (temporary) modules in place for the hospitals. … That should not be seen as normal,” Plaskett said.
Bryan added that the territory needs to get that work started as quickly as possible.
“You don’t want to delay repairs so that other damage happens. Abandoned buildings lead to vagrancy,” Bryan said.
The federal government sent a letter to the Mapp administration on Dec. 5 saying it denied the administration’s request to continue to waive local cost sharing for FEMA and Army Corps of Engineering recovery efforts.
Not getting that waiver could cost the territory a lot.
“My staff is talking about a little under $100 million,” Plaskett said Tuesday.
Plaskett said the waivers were all the more important because federal government has underfunded the territories and put what she called arbitrary caps on its access to federal programs like Medicaid.
“I sent them a letter yesterday letting them know not only that I disagreed with their decision … Congress gave (FEMA Administrator Brock) Long the authority to waive cost sharing because of the underfunding of the territories through the years. He has not cited that or looked at that as a reason for denial so hopefully appealing that will have some impact,” Plaskett said.
Plaskett said in her and Bryan’s meetings with members of Congress, ranking Democrats and Republicans agreed they intended to waive the cost sharing.
“Congress’ intent was to waive that. I think it is important we ask for that and when we are denied we don’t just take that at face value and walk away,” Plaskett said.
The two Democrats were similarly critical of the Mapp administration’s response to pressure for more security for disaster related revenue assistance loans.
Congress gave initial approval for up to $296 million in disaster loans to the USVI to offset revenue losses related to the storms – $250 million for the operations of the central government and $46 million for the territory’s hospitals.
But FEMA initially held up that total, disbursing $85 million in loans as of February, with $65 million going for FY 2018 budget expenses and the rest to the territory’s hospitals. Then the government agreed to place the loans on the same senior lien level as its existing bond debt and secure them with government revenues. Since then the federal government has increased loan authorization to $309 million and disbursed more than $286 million, according to FEMA officials.
Plaskett said the Mapp administration should have pushed harder on both the amount of the loans and the security for them.
“I have been really concerned about the lack of pushback from the current administration, Plaskett said, citing instances when Congress approved loans from the with the Community Disaster Loans program. The Secretary of Commerce and Office of Management and Budget decided the territory needed to put up collateral and assets for loans that Congress had approved. The members said no, that was not the intent of Congress.
“We had already acquiesced and caved in, putting up collateral so that more money was not available to us,” Plaskett said.
Spending the money correctly as well as quickly is crucial, she said.
“If there is money not spent in the area it is supposed to be spent, there is going to be a clawback” Plaskett said.
In an earlier interview with the Source, Plaskett said she believed Mapp’s website reporting federal assistance funding needs much more detailed information, including who has what contracts and both funding and spending records down to at least the $1 million level. That website mostly shows gross totals in several broad categories of funding, with slight breakdowns by area of spending. FEMA public assistance grants to organizations are broken down with more detail. But contractor names and disbursement dates, for example, are not part of the data.
Tuesday, Plaskett said she still wanted much more information on the site, including who bid on what projects and what is spent on each one over time. Bryan said he had spoken to officials about how to upgrade the website “complete with a timeline” for projects.
“I want you to hold my feet to the fire,” he said.
The two expressed optimism for the upcoming year, saying they had a good working relationship. Plaskett said the incoming Democratic majority opened up opportunities for more infrastructure spending and action on priorities impacting the Caribbean basin.
She said there is a chance for a waiver creating an expedited process for people from the Eastern Caribbean to come into the U.S. Virgin Islands only, for sports, entertainment and health care. Until now, Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia had held that in committee, but next year it may be heard.
“Also once the new majority takes office, the territories will once again have a vote on the floor. I think that will be really helpful to us,” Plaskett said.
Editor’s Note: This has been updated to reflect newer loan disbursement figures from FEMA.