Human Services Commissioner Kimberley Causey-Gomez was upbeat about her department’s efforts. Senators’ response to her testimony Tuesday was anything but.
At the Committee on Budget, Appropriations and Finance hearing, Sen. Pres. Novelle Francis said, “I am truly hurting from what I am hearing today.”
Of major concern to senators was the nearing deadline of many federal grants before funds were expended. Sen. Franklin Johnson said, “Seeing those grants sitting there is very disheartening.” He said, from what he saw, 39 of the agency’s 64 federal grants were going to expire and as far as DHS spending the grant money, he said, “I don’t see it happening.”
“We don’t want to see one red penny going back. We want it all utilized,” Sen. Angel Bolques said.
Lydia Magras, chief financial officer for DHS, said all the funds would be used, although some extensions would have to be applied for. “Our spending in the first quarter is limited. We ramp up later in the year,” she said.
Pay for department workers was a concern for Sen. Ray Fonseca. He said the department had 50 employees making less than $15 an hour. He said those employees must get a raise. The Department employs 638 people.
During the discussion, the salary of Causey-Gomez, the two assistant commissioners, and the two deputy commissioners came up. Causey-Gomez is making $135,000 a year and her top assistants are all making around $100,000.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens said the department’s name should be called Department of Hindering Services and asked, “Why should we be raising commissioners’ salaries?” Causey Gomez had a recent raise.
Sen. Diane Capehart was also concerned about personnel – the lack of. “You have so many vacancies it is unbelievable and so many people who want jobs,” she said.
Causey-Gomez testified that at the beginning of this fiscal year, the department had 197 vacancies but hiring has brought the number of vacancies to 148.
Gittens said he heard the commissioner talk about “high quality and professional services” at the territory’s senior centers, but he saw no evidence. One senator said the centers were lacking basic supplies like toilet paper and adult diapers.
Also, concerns were raised about solving the homelessness problem in the territory. Department officials replied that homelessness was a problem worldwide. And there was just no place to put some of the homeless because of a housing shortage in the territory. Another stickler for the senators was the Wheels on Meals program. They learned from testimony that there was a waiting list for the program, with 150 people waiting on St. Croix and 180 waiting on St. John.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said, “We can’t leave people hungry.”
The department’s budget request for fiscal year 2024 is $258 million. The budget would include from the General Fund $72 million and federal funds $183 million.
Causey-Gomez said in her testimony, “The diligent men and women of the Department of Human Services are devoted to supporting individuals, children, families, persons with disabilities, and the elderly in their pursuit of self-sufficiency during prosperous times, as well as offering emotional and financial assistance during periods of economic downturn.”
Attending Tuesday’s committee hearing were Sens. Donna Frett-Gregory, Novelle Francis Jr., Angel Bolques Jr., Marvin Blyden, Diane Capehart, Samuel Carrión, Dwayne DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, Kenneth Gittens, Marise James, Javan E. James Sr., Franklin Johnson, and Carla Joseph.