On the day he appeared before the 34th Legislature Committee on Finance, the head of the Port Authority said his agency would cut back on spending in the year to come. Executive Director Carlton Dowe told lawmakers on the committee that travel restrictions brought on by the national COVID-19 health emergency cut deeply into his agency’s revenues in 2020 and 2021.
Friday was the scheduled day for the Port Authority to present its Fiscal Year 2023 budget request of $65.9 million. In his testimony, Dowe said the loss of port fees from visiting cruise ships during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic produced a $27.6 million deficit over a two-year period. Maritime cargo operations also suffered 30 percent losses during that time, Dowe said.
“Dowe stated that the last two years were particularly difficult because of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” said a statement released by Finance Committee Chairman Kurt Vialet over the weekend. “The territory received no cruise ship visits for an 18-month period. There were no cruise ships in the territory from March 2020. The first cruise ship returned to St. Thomas on July 20, 2021, and August 8, 2021, on St. Croix.”
To help make their government appropriation stretch farther, the Port Authority director said the agency will impose a hiring freeze over all vacant positions except those in law enforcement, firefighters, and aviation personnel required by the Federal Aviation Administration. There are currently 97 vacancies; 33 of those vacancies are unfunded and have already been placed on hold, according to Senate sources.
Dowe said his agency will also restrict its capital improvements program to projects that have already received funding or have been identified as critical to the authority’s operations.
The Virgin Islands Port Authority manages 14 seaports, as well as the Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas and the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix.
Finance Committee members meeting Friday also heard from the Bureau of Corrections. Director Wynnie Testamark and her management team as they defended their Fiscal Year 2023 request. The bureau faces a $4.5 million budget cut from the funding requested in the previous year.
Much of the agency’s funding is linked to staffing. Corrections has 287 budgeted positions, with 93 vacancies. Corrections officers represent 43 percent of staffing, officials said. According to Testamark, corrections officers and other staff salaries were increased by collective bargaining agreements. Correction officers’ pay rose by an average of 45.4 percent, she said.
Corrections supervisors recently saw gains resulting from a new agreement with the Law Enforcement Supervisors Union. Salary adjustments are expected to take effect Oct. 1.
Vendor payments make up more than a third of the Corrections bureau budget. Most of the money covers the cost of feeding and housing 163 Virgin Islands inmates in off-island jails and prisons, according to the bureau’s presentation.
Testamark told lawmakers the bureau’s financial officers were developing creative ways to fund support services for its inmate population. Much of the funding would be sought through grant applications, she said.
Corrections officials say grants can, among other things, help fund a territorywide prisoner re-entry program and provide substance abuse programs. Larger grants are being sought to repair and rehabilitate the Alva Swan Correctional Annex on St. Thomas.