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SEA MAKES A CASE FOR CUTTING OFF FEDERAL FUNDS

June 27, 2003 – A local environmental group's urging of officials in the nation's capital to halt federal funding to the Virgin Islands is being met with "unrighteous indignation" by some of the territory's political leaders but has won support from other segments of the community, according to one member.
Bill Turner, executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association, recently returned from Washington, D.C., where he and a delegation of Virgin Islanders met with representatives of several members of Congress to discuss what he termed the "gross misappropriations" of federal dollars in the territory.
Turner noted that SEA in October 2002 began what was intended to be a year-long program of monitoring the failures of St. Croix's aging sewage system. Sewage was bypassed at pump stations throughout the island 36 times that month, either into the ocean or to another station.
"After that, we realized we don't have a year — and those were just the ones that people reported to our office," Turner said on Friday. His guess is that, had more detailed monitoring of the situation been done, three or four times that many bypasses would have been recorded.
So, working from data from that month's study, the group put together a 16-page report on the territory's history of inadequate responses to environmental problems.
SEA also solicited community help in monitoring sewage system failures in November. (See the St. Croix Source report "Public asked to let SEA know of open sewage".) Turned said on Friday that the documentation for November, like that for October, was sent to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
As the "core issue for change," the report on the October findings cited the "flawed procurement" of contracts intended to address the sewage system issues.
"The specious argument that the government of the Virgin Islands does not have the funding to effect repairs and maintenance has been demonstrated to be both factually inaccurate and a barometer for the appearance of corruption," the report stated, citing a statement read earlier in the year to EPA officials.
The report went on to cite the scandal in the Turnbull administration made public earlier this year in which Global Resources Management Inc., a company with no employees, experience or equipment, was awarded a multimillion-dollar contract to make wastewater system repairs on St. Croix without going through the bidding process. After the U.S. Attorney's Office filed suit in District Court challenging the use of a state of emergency to award the contract, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull canceled the deal the two days before the court date.
District Judge Thomas K. Moore, in a wide-ranging ruling highly critical of the Turnbull administration, ordered the V.I. government in March not to reinstate the contract, and to hire a qualified contractor within three months to operate and maintain the territory's sewage systems for the next six months. (See "Judge finds 'reek of politics' in sewage contract".)
"This is merely one example of a contract that was improperly awarded for political gain at the expense of the health and safety of the citizens of the Virgin Islands in a nearly 20-year history of misappropriation, ineptitude and, potentially, corruption," the SEA report stated.
Education funding also at risk
The loss and misappropriation of federal money could put the Virgin Islands at risk to lose further grants, Turner said, and the SEA report points to discrepancies within the Education Department.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the Virgin Islands spends $6,478 per student in the territory — hundreds of dollars more than both Florida and California spend. But only 51 percent of eighth-grade students in the territory rate above the "basic" level in reading skills, the report said, and: "This would be woefully unacceptable in California or Florida and would constitute a national scandal."
Turner said the U.S. Department of Education has subsequently listed the Virgin Islands as a high-risk grantee for its funds, threatening the future awarding of grants.
As Turner sees it, temporarily halting federal funding to the territory now is the best way to bring about beneficial long-term effects. It "would prevent more money from being wasted until solutions are in place to ease the procurement process," he said. "It would prevent the Virgin Islands from losing federal grants altogether."
The report said that unless the government is forced to procure goods and services through fair and open practices, the island infrastructure will continue to deteriorate.
Turner said the V.I. group met with officials in the Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs to discuss the funding issues, the possibility of hiring independent inspectors to ensure that federal money is properly spent, and the idea of disbursing of federal funds to contractors through a third-party entity such as the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development. The foundation currently manages the funding for AIDS treatment in the territory.
Managing federal funding, Turner said, is a task SEA is neither interested in nor prepared to undertake. "SEA doesn't have the ability; we would be overwhelmed," he said.
"The situation is perilous," Turner said, pointing out that because of bureaucratic red tape in Washington, it would take at least a year to stop the flow of federal funding to the territory. "The core of our issue," he said, "is that we want the sewer system fixed and a solid-waste plan in effect. Meantime, while the government is waiting to take action, funding could be lost."
There has been abundant criticism of SEA's stance in some political circles locally, but the "community as a whole has responded very positively," Turner said, adding: "I have received several calls thanking me for going to Washington and trying to get something accomplished."

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