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HomeNewsLocal governmentHospital, School, Library Projects Need to be Accelerated, or Territory Will Pay

Hospital, School, Library Projects Need to be Accelerated, or Territory Will Pay

Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien told Senators Friday that if FEMA projects were not done timely, it would cost the territory money. (Photo courtesy V.I. Legislature)

Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol denied at Friday’s hearing before the Senate Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure, and Planning that his department was behind on recovery projects, but several senators disagreed.

Sen. Franklin Johnson asked, “Why are we taking so long on these projects.”

Sen. Diane Capehart did not ask a question; she stated, “These projects are taking too long.”

The disaster recovery projects under discussion were from the 2017 hurricanes. Federal funding for them was not approved until 2021. The projects include schools, hospitals, and libraries.

As far as the libraries are concerned, Sen. Kenneth Gittens said DPNR was “teasing people” by recently holding a ribbon-cutting at the Florence Williams Library, which is still not open to the public. Oriol said it would open on April 6.

As for the other libraries, Oriol said the $3 million project at Charles W. Turnbull Library was held up because bids kept coming in too high. DPNR was able to secure more money from the American Rescue Plan Act. Construction has begun, and the project is expected to be completed in September.

The Enid M. Baa Library project also had a problem with bids coming in higher than expected. However, a contract has been signed, and the job should be done within a year.

Adrienne Williams-Octalien, director of the Office of Disaster Recovery, testified that the projects must be accelerated.

In February 2024, the territory was given a cost share break for FEMA disaster recovery grants. Up until then, the cost share was 10 percent. The grants will total between $10 and $15 billion, making the cost share originally over $1 billion, an amount everyone at Friday’s hearing agreed the territory could ill afford.

According to Williams-Octalien, the cost share for the bulk of the larger, more complex projects to rebuild schools, hospitals, and other critical facilities would now only be two percent. The cost share would be five percent for smaller projects.

The catch is that all the projects must be approved by the end of September this year, and construction must be completed in 11 years. A calculation thrown out at the hearing showed that if the rate of project achievement continued at the present pace, those deadlines would not be met. Williams-Octalien said, “At the present pace of expenditures at $500 million per year, it will take another 20 years to complete the recovery.”

For this reason, a system of “bundling” of disaster recovery projects is being implemented. This initiative is being called Rebuild USVI.

To launch the initiative, the territory needs to attract firms with proven strategies for housing, supply chain, and labor shortages and the ability to construct in hard-to-build areas.

Williams-Octalien testified, “We needed to change the way we do business; they needed projects totaling $1 billion or more, streamlined processes, clear lines for decision-making, timely payments, and shared risk procurement.”

Oriol also discussed the Fort Christian Museum project and the Fort Frederik project. About 60 percent of the design plans for Fort Frederik have been completed. The funding will be used to extensively renovate the facility, like Fort Christian’s renovation seven years ago.

In response to questions from Sen. Milton Potter, Oriol stated that libraries are adapting to technological advancements with additional computer labs, spacious rooms for community meetings, a private, quiet room for telemedicine, and comfortable reading sections with couches and lounge chairs.

The Sprauve Library repairs have been completed and are currently open to patrons.

Potter, Capehart, Donna Frett-Gregory, Gittens, Alma Francis Heyliger, Novelle Francis,  Johnson, and Carla Joseph were among the senators present at Friday’s committee hearing.

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