Kimberley Causey-Gomez, who served as assistant commissioner of the Department of Human Services during the administration of John de Jongh, acknowledged Thursday that taking over the troubled department will be challenging.
She told senators at a committee hearing that when she returned to the Virgin Islands in April she recognized the public’s perception of the Department of Human Services as “an agency not fulfilling its mandates in a consistent and comprehensive manner.”
“This perception has impacted negatively on the morale of our employees,” she continued.
During her time serving as the nominee for DHS commissioner, she said, she has met daily “emails, face-to-face interactions, phone calls and text messages that sound like, ‘No one returns our calls or emails.’ ‘The Department owes me an amount of money.’ ‘DHS is at threat of losing federal funds if you do not act now.’ ‘Did you know there is a compliance issue?’ ‘Where is my raise I was promised?’ ‘When can we hire more staff to fill the gaps?’ ‘When will our buildings be repaired?’ and ‘I hear what you are saying but we have heard that before and we do not trust DHS.’”
Members of the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee, before moving her nomination forward to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation, agreed with her assessment of the department and wanted to know what Causey-Gomez would do to change the situation.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens asked Causey-Gomez, “Please help me change my opinion of the Department of Excuses.”
Sen. Athneil Thomas said, “the department has had a few rough years.” He added the spirit of caring Causey-Gomez emphasized in her testimony was key to his support for her.
Sen. Javan James, the only senator voting against the favorable recommendation being forwarded, questioned Causey-Gomez about policies she would implement to keep federal grant money from being returned.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw, chair of the committee, said that last year the department had to send back $3.5 million in federal money in the Headstart and SNAP programs.
But the concern that ranked highest with almost all the senators present was the department’s former home in Golden Rock on St. Croix. DHS has not occupied the building since the hurricanes almost two years ago, but the department is still paying rent there.
Sarauw said a roofing company is now in the building. She asked Causey-Gomez why the department is still paying rent there. Causey-Gomez said “that is a good question.” She said as soon as she learned the department was paying rent there, she went to the Department of Property and Procurement to have the lease payments cease.
The lease was in the news in early 2017. At that time Human Services was six months behind in its rent – totaling $265,000. A release from the department said the government paid just under $40,000 per month for rent at the Golden Rock property. The department began renting it in the mid 1990s. It was reported in 2017 that the landlord, Fast Foto, had a property tax delinquency dating back to 2012. The back taxes and the delinquent rent were linked in a newspaper article
Sarauw also had another concern; she said the government is “being milked.” She said departments had been coming before the Senate with costs of $100,000 for website construction and high yearly contracts. She said people on her staff can build websites for $200 and she urged all departments to use the Bureau of Information of Technology.
Causey-Gomez said during her earlier tenure at the department under Commissioner Chris Finch that “we were really in great shape.” She added she had to leave in 2011 because of her father’s death and other family matters needing her attention.
She started her work in the Virgin Islands at Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands. She began her career in the government of the Virgin Islands in 1995 as a social worker.
Senators voting for the favorable recommendation were Sarauw, Novelle Francis, Jr., Myron Jackson, Steven Payne, Sr., and Kenneth Gittens. The other committee member, Sen. Alicia Barnes, did not vote.