July 24, 2002 – As the territory's three housing agencies made their Fiscal Year 2003 budget hearing appearances before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, the news they brought was for the most part not good.
Al Simmonds, interim executive director of the V.I. Housing Authority, said he needs $6.3 million to cover operating expenses of $1.5 million and the authority's prior 13-year deficit of $4.7 million. The governor recommended $1.9 million for the authority.
Insufficient funding has caused the authority to fall behind in vendor payments, notably $2.6 million owed to the Water and Power Authority, Simmonds said.
VIHA manages the Lucinda Millin and Whim Gardens homes for the elderly. The Millin facility on St. Thomas requires 24-hour nursing service, Simmonds said, and has a staff of 10 headed by the sole one registered nurse. The Whim Gardens home on St. Croix has a staff of five, he said.
Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole said his office receives "numerous complaints" about the Millin nursing services being inadequate.
Simmonds said U.S. Health and Human Services Department officials have said that paying off the deficit should be a priority, and that local funds, not federal money, should be used to do so. Also contributing to the authority's fiscal woes, Simmonds said, are "high insurance premiums, loss of rental units through demolition and sales, changes to the performance funding system implemented by HUD [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development], and unreimbursed funds expended for disaster relief" from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
He said the authority needs additional funding for capital repairs, vacancy rehabilitation, hurricane damage repairs in the Tutu High-Rise apartments and funding for the VIHA police force.
Questioned by the senators, Simmonds and other housing officials urged support for the VIHA police program. Its future is uncertain, VIHA Police Chief Fitzroy Williams said, because it is losing federal funding of about $2 million this year in a nationwide move.
As for the Housing Finance Authority, its director, Clifford Graham, told the committee that since its inception in the early 90s, no money has been deposited in the Housing Development Trust Fund established to subsidize the cost of building affordable housing. A portion of property taxes was supposed to go into the fund, Graham said.
The governor has proposed a budget of $450,000 for the HFA. Graham told the committee he needs $1 million to run the authority. "Only when adequate infrastructure funding is made available to ensure the production of affordable housing," he said, would the $450,000 be sufficient for the authority to carry out its mandate.
Housing Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Hobson said the governor's recommended $5.7 million for his department, down from the FY 2002 appropriation of $6.4 million, would allow his agency to "provide the day-to-day basic services, "even though the governor has allowed no money dedicated to capital improvements."
Hobson reported that the department has made progress on its home ownership program and that the its 17 recreation facilities throughout the territory are being renovated, with improved lighting, fencing, landscaping and resurfacing of tennis and basketball courts. Much of the improvements have come from federal funds, he said.
Housing Parks and Recreation has initiated an "acceptable maintenance standard of decent housing and sound recreation," he said, and in the third year of its five-year plan has been successful in obtaining funding necessary to carry out a variety of projects.
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., chair of the Senate Housing, Parks and Recreation Committee, raised concerns not mentioned by the three agency heads. He asked what they planned to do about Peterborg residents' protests of a rental housing development under way above Magens Bay on St. Thomas's North Side.
Development of The Lovenlund Bay Apartments Complex was approved unanimously by White's committee in May. On Monday night, Sen. Lorraine Berry, a committee member, held a meeting at Mahogany Run for residents to air their concerns. White, in a rare moment of support for Berry, praised her action.
The 99-unit Lovenlund project is being developed by Reliance Housing Foundation Inc. Ground breaking is set for June 2003 with completion planned for December 2003.
Robert O. Jackson, Reliance president, said the development will consist of 10 three-story garden-style apartment buildings, a leasing office, a community building and a maintenance shop. He said the project will cost $19.9 million, about three-quarters of it funded through federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits. This, he said, will allow the rental of two-bedroom units starting at $652 a month, three-bedrooms from $749 and four-bedrooms from $814. VIHA allotted the credits to the project.
Residents of the area are circulating a petition against the development, charging that they had no advance notice of the development, their input was not sought and, as taxpayers, they have a vested interest in the project.
"You should all be on the radio today objecting to this," White told the housing representatives, referring to the residents' objections. Graham, who was at the Monday meeting, said he has drafted a memorandum to inform the public of the merits of the development.
The hearing on the budget for the Office of the Governor, scheduled as the first item for Tuesday, was taken off the agenda with no explanation.
Committee members present for the session were Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., Cole, Carlton Dowe, the chair, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, and White. Members not present were Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Norman Jn Baptiste and Norma Pickard-Samuel.
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