July 24, 2003 – At the Labor Department's Fiscal Year 2004 budget hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday, Commissioner Cecil Benjamin voiced a complaint that has become standard for almost every agency: If it doesn't get sufficient funding, services will be cut.
Benjamin said that although the Labor Department plays a "significant and vitally important role in promoting the economic prosperity of the V.I.," it has never as an institution been given "the commitment and support commensurate with its importance."
In addition to managing unemployment benefits, he said, the department conducts a summer youth employment program and retraining programs to place workers back in the work force.
"Any further [budget] cuts would severely hamper our ability to carry out our most basic functions," Benjamin said. Like other agency heads, he told the senators that he was submitting a "bare bones" budget in light of the government's looming FY 2003 deficit.
"The Department of Labor has one of the smallest budgets funded from the local General Fund," he said, "and yet we serve the largest segment of the community, which encompasses the entire work force and business establishments."
Benjamin asked for a budget of $6.9 million, an increase of $235,104 over the department $6.7 million this fiscal year. Of this amount, $3 million would come from the General Fund, with the balance coming from other sources such as the Government Insurance Fund. Benjamin said he expects to receive about $7 million in federal funds.
He noted that unemployment rates are on the rise locally and are well above the national average of 6.4 percent.
The most recent available statistics, for May, obtained from the Labor Department on Thursday morning, show the jobless rate at 9.4 percent for St. Thomas-St. John and 11.9 percent for St. Croix. Benjamin told the committee on Wednesday that unemployment was at 12.2 percent on St. Croix and 7.6 percent for St. Thomas-St. John.
Sen. Louis Hill, who has complained at other budget hearings of a lack of clear information, told Benjamin that while his budget listed many goals for FY 2004, none had a price attached. He asked the commissioner to give a detailed account of what his department's services to the community cost.
"That accounting should be what this budget process is about — establishing how much it costs to deliver a particular service," Hill said.
A number of senators have expressed a desire to go back to line-item budgets so the Legislature will have some control over how appropriated funds are spent. After having imposed line-item budgets for the last two fiscal years, the Senate in February, heeding pleas from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, approved a return to lump-sum budgets, allowing department and agency heads discretion in shifting money around as needed. It appears that the new policy may be short-lived.
Cultural Heritage Institute
The committee also heard the FY 2004 budget request of the V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute on Wednesday afternoon.
The institute is asking for $647,808, a whopping tenfold increase over its FY 2003 budget of $65,000. According to a Senate Post Audit Division report, post auditors were unable to conduct a budget analysis because they had no breakdown of the institute's spending. The report says that $476,000 of the FY 2004 request would be used to host a "third folklife festival."
Myron Jackson, director of the institute, said it has been unable to stage the festival since 1996 for lack of funding. The first festival, he said in a telephone interview on Thursday, was held in the summer of 1990 in Washington, D.C., where the Virgin Islands was showcased at the Smithsonian Institution's annual nine-day Festival of American Folklife on the Washington Mall. After that, he said, a second festival was held on St. Croix in 1992 and restaged on St. Thomas in 1996.
"It was always our intention that it should be an annual event, moved from island to island each year," Jackson said. "It celebrates Virgin Island culture and tradition bearers." He said he hopes to get the funding to stage the festival on St. John in 2004.
Committee members present for the hearing were the chair, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, and Sens. Roosevelt David, Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell. Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste was absent. Also present were Sens. Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Celestino A. White Sr., who are not members of the committee.
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