July 23, 2002 – Although the V.I. Justice Department has gotten new lawyers on board, it still lacks prosecutors, Attorney General Iver Stridiron told the Senate Finance Committee Monday, throwing in the observation that the public could ease the burden by coming forward with information on crimes.
Also making their pitches before the committee Monday were the Tourism Department, the V.I. Fire Service and the Planning and Natural Resources Department.
"Participation by our residents in our crime-fighting activities is sometimes sorely lacking," Stridiron said, voicing a chronic lament of law officers in the territory.
Testifying at the final Fiscal Year 2003 budget hearing on St. Croix before the committee moves to St. Thomas beginning on Tuesday, Stridiron implored the senators "as public servants, to urge your constituents to join the war on crime in the V.I., so that our islands may be made a better place in which to live, work and raise our families."
He summarized the Justice Department's responsibilities, citing needs and accomplishments. He said the department would "limp along" with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's recommended budget of $26.6 million plus $3.6 million in federal funds. Last year, the department received an increase of about 25 percent, to $26.5 million over FY 2001's $21.1 million. As long as there are no further cuts for the department's 516 employees, including 52 lawyers, Stridiron said, the department should make it through FY 2003. "We'll make to with what we get," he said.
The department prosecutes criminal cases, handles the collection of child support and runs the territory's corrections facilities.
He said the Criminal Division in both districts remains understaffed, but the St. Croix situation, with eight criminal prosecutors, is "much more acute" than St. Thomas-St. John, which has 24. However, he said, four assistant attorneys general have recently been added to the St. Croix staff.
Stridiron said his Domestic Violence Unit, staffed by two lawyers and largely funded by a federal grant, has "by any measure been a success." Still, he made a plea for hiring two more lawyers because of "domestic violence cases exploding in number."
He said the department has a "no-drop" policy, which means that defendants must appear in court before a case is disposed of, a change from the previous practice of dropping cases when victims of domestic violence have "a change of heart, as they often do," and drop the charges. He said the new policy has gotten the message out that the department will prosecute domestic violence cases even without the cooperation of a complaining witness.
Stridiron said the Paternity and Child Support Division has come a long way since it was threatened by the federal Health and Human Services Department with decertification in 1999. He said federal officials have eased up on penalizing the division with "negative awards" of thousands of dollars each quarter.
More to the point, he said, the division "no longer the subject of numerous and constant daily complaints by our clients." For a time last year, Stridiron was almost a regular on radio talk shows, explaining the whereabouts of child-support checks and what was going on with the division's computer system when payments were delayed. Now, "in our caseload of more than 12,000 families, the vast majority receive their checks on time and in the correct amounts," he said.
Stridiron said the department has "improved dramatically" with the hiring of more employees and installation of a new computer system which is undergoing federal certification.
He also brought the senators good news from the Corrections Bureau. "We have returned all our off-island prisoners except 13 to the V.I.," he said. He said the 13 plus three former Golden Grove Correctional Facility inmates transferred to Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia are costing the government about "$130,000 per month over the next 10 years."
In 1999, the territory's overdue bill to the Federal Bureau of Prisons was in excess of $16 million. "That figure is now $9.7 million," Stridiron said, "and pursuant to an agreement with the FBOP, the $9.7 million is to be forgiven, now that all prisoners are out of the federal system."
As concerns within the Corrections Bureau, he cited an "overtime problem" and delays in constructing a jail annex on St. Thomas.
He said his department was authorized by the governor to hire 43 corrections officers and to return some officers on special assignment to their posts. While 29 new officers have been hired so far, he said, "overtime continues to plague the bureau." But he projected a decrease for FY 2003.
Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards told the committee that she needs eight more employees to prepare St. Croix for "an increase in visitors and to serve their needs adequately while they are here." She asked for $750,000 above the $3.4 million budget the governor has proposed, according to a Tuesday report in The Avis.
The administration's recommendation is $233,000 more than Tourism received for the current fiscal year.
Richards said 2002 has been a "difficult year for the territory" but that marketing efforts have resulted in increased attention for the territory. She said the decisions of three cruise lines in recent months to pull out of St. Croix has dramatically impacted the island's economy. But, she added, "with certain administrative and structural changes to what we have, we feel we can lure them back."
The department has developed "several public relations initiatives and responses to attract passengers," she said, and starting this week, "we will be meeting on a weekly basis with different community organizations to begin the implementation of these initiatives."
The senators also heard from the V.I. Fire Service and the Planning and Natural Resources Department.
Fire Service Director Ian Williams Sr. asked for $3.9 million above the $13.4 million the governor proposed. He said the money is needed to complete negotiations for property on St. Thomas and to complete the new central fire station on St. Thomas, according to The Avis. "Increased funding is mandatory to meet our contractual and legal obligations at this time," he said.
DPNR Commissioner Dean Plaskett said his agency is requesting $6.8 million from the General Fund, which would be 20 percent of the department's overall budget. He said federal funds of $19 million will provide the largest chunk of the budget, according to the published report.
Noting that DPNR's federal funding increased from $8 million in 2001 to almost $21 million in 2002, Plaskett said, "We take great pride in the fact that in each year since 1999, DPNR has utilized all of the federal funds it received and has increased the total amount received."
Budget hearings on St. Thomas are to begin Tuesday with the Office of the Governor, V.I. Public Television and the Housing Parks and Recreation Department.
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