Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. talked about meetings in Washington, D.C., last week to convince federal government officials to grant additional financial aid but didn’t learn if any of the requests were granted.
Speaking at the weekly Government House briefing Monday, Bryan said he met with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ask again for a reduction in the matching fund requirement, now at 10 percent. Based on that figure, $1.5 billion is now required to receive FEMA funding for the $15 billion obligated for hurricane recovery. Only $500 million was set aside for the purpose before the storms, Bryan said, which will be expended before the majority of projects are completed.
“So if we don’t find the 10 percent, the projects don’t get done. To put that into perspective, our total economy is only $4 billion. Our annual budget is $1.5 billion,” he said.
Appeals made to previous and current U.S. presidents as well as FEMA directors to waive the $1.5 billion “have been unsuccessful so far.” According to Bryan, the federal government doesn’t want to set a precedent by waiving the amount, although Congress would allow such a move. As it stands, the $1.5 billion will come due in the next administration around 2026. Another challenge to getting a waiver is the number of disasters FEMA is currently dealing with.
“They (FEMA) just went back because they are running out of money,” Bryan said.
Now, Bryan is asking for a waiver on the most important projects, such as schools, hospitals, water and sewage.
The governor also met with the U.S. Interior Department to request the rum cover over taxes be permanently increased from $10.50 to $13.25 per gallon. After the 2017 hurricanes, the amount was increased to $13.25 for five years and in September, the territory received $212,039,584, using the $10.50 rate — around $14 million less than last year.
Bryan mentioned that the solvency of the Government Employees Retirement System depends in part on a permanent increase of the rum cover-over. The lower rate means the term of the solvency plan will be longer. He stressed that it is not crucial and that GERS is secure.
“We are hoping to see action taken by Congress on the extender by the end of the year,” Bryan said.
Bryan said he talked to Interior also about re-opening the St. Croix refinery — as an important aspect of the island’s economy. The GVI will continue to work on it with Washington, he said, adding that the unemployment rate on St. Croix is currently 4.7 percent (3.7 percent on St. Thomas).
A meeting with U.S. Housing and Urban Development focused on a request to allow the Virgin Islands to continue to use Community Development Block Grant funds to buy out the V.I. Water and Power Authority’s Vitol propane contract. The CDBG funds would allow WAPA to eventually purchase propane more cheaply and lower the cost of electricity to residents.
The governor reported he was presented with an award from the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved for working to integrate the V.I. healthcare system.
Bryan also announced his nominee for commissioner of Human Services — Averil George, currently the assistant commissioner of the Public Works Department. She was also acting Labor commissioner under Gov. Kenneth Mapp and worked for HOVENSA for two decades.
“She is now going to lead Human Services, which our most vulnerable Virgin Islanders look to for assistance every day,” Bryan said, introducing George.
George thanked the governor, her family, the Public Works commissioner and former DHS Commissioner Kimberly Causey-Gomez for facilitating a smooth transition.
“I am confident I can substantially contribute to the department’s triumphs. I am profoundly enthusiastic about becoming a part of the DHS team,” she said.
Bryan also announced $10 million in refund checks had been mailed to everyone who filed by April 18, 2023.
Finally, Bryan invited residents to comment on proposed rules and regulations for the Cannabis Commission by Oct. 10 at www.ocr.vi.gov. He spoke at a cannabis convention in Chicago recently.
Lastly, Bryan congratulated St. Thomian Aliyah Boston of the Indiana Fever for being named Rookie of the Year by the Women’s National Basketball Association.