July 24, 2003 – Unlike most of the agencies that have appeared before the Senate Finance Committee so far for Fiscal Year 2004 budget hearings, the Law Enforcement Planning Commission and the Narcotics Strike Force presented reduced budget requests on Thursday.
The LEPC is requesting $600,860, a decrease of $40,533 from its FY 2003 appropriation. But LEPC director Eddy Charles warned that all of the money requested is needed.
"This is the bottom line for LEPC," Charles said. "We cannot sustain any further reductions in the General Fund for personnel [or] operating expenses."
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone commended the LEPC for reducing its request at a time when the government is facing a deficit projected at $152 million for the current fiscal year.
Sen. Luther Renee asked Charles the reason for the reduction. "What you're looking at is the current ceiling from the Office of Management and Budget, and we cannot go beyond that," Charles replied.
Federal homeland security funds for the territory are channeled through the LEPC. Charles said the agency has received $6.7 million to date for the V.I. Homeland Security program.
Sen. Lorraine Berry, who is not a Finance Committee member, asked Charles if he didn't see a need to set up a separate Office of Homeland Security to manage the funds. Charles said he did not.
Berry, who chairs the Public Safety, Judiciary, Homeland Security and Justice Committee newly created by the 25th Legislature, said, however, that she would be pushing legislation to do so.
Charles also presented the budget request of the Narcotics Strike Force, which the LEPC oversees. The NSF is seeking $777,540, a decrease of $44,156 from its FY 2003 appropriation.
Again, he told the senators: "The NSF cannot sustain any more cuts, and again, I warn that with any more cuts we are sending the wrong message to the feds about our fair share in this war on drugs."
Charles said the NSF has received a lot of "adverse past publicity" because of ongoing investigations involving agents. Two St. Croix agents are currently on administrative leave pending a legal review.
"It has taken some time and confidence-building for the unit and those remaining agents to regain mutual respect among the law-enforcement community," Charles said, adding that the agency is considering changing its name in an effort to improve its standing in the community.
Renee mentioned talk in the community of disbanding the strike force. Charles responded that doing so would send a wrong message concerning the territory's fight against drugs.
"Local law-enforcement agencies should look at each other as brothers and sisters in the fight against crimes," Charles said.
The V.I. Fire Service in its presentation Thursday requested a budget of slightly over $13 million for FY 2004 without any further reduction and with consideration of a supplemental budget of $1.7 million.
Fire Service director Ian Williams Sr. said the agency received a 6.8 percent cut in its FY 2003 budget. Because of this, he said, the Fire Service has not been able to complete all of its goals for this fiscal year. He said it has been able to:
– Complete repairs to the roof of the Fort Christian fire station on St. Thomas.
– Fence and pave the Richmond Fire Station on St. Croix.
– Establish an Arson Prevention Office at the Cruz Bay fire station on St. John.
– Acquire three new fire trucks.
– Complete 80 percent of work needed on a water well at the Cotton Valley Fire Station on St. Croix.
– Complete 80 percent of work needed at the Tutu fire station, while awaiting approval by the governor of a supplemental contract.
"It appears that the cuts are being done randomly with no provisions to ensure the effectiveness of the department," Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Finance Committee chair, said.
Williams said the Fire Service is in need of more equipment — and that without it, his personnel won't be capable of performing at an "optimum level."
But there are personnel needs as well, he said, noting the retirement of six individuals and the call to active military duty for at least six months of five others who are in the V.I. National Guard. And he said that morale is low because of owed wages, no overtime, working conditions and what he termed the poor condition of fire station facilities.
The Office of the Adjutant General and V.I. Public Television also presented their FY 2004 budget requests before the committee.
Adj. Gen. Cleve McBean asked for $1.7 million, an increase of 11 percent from the FY 2003 appropriation of $1.5 million. Of the $1.7 million, $1,043,092 would go to the V.I. National Guard and $720,084 would go to the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency.
McBean told the senators that fiscal restrictions were adversely impacting the base-readiness posture of the armed forces as they "struggle to match federal funds where applicable, in dollars and/or in kind."
He said VITEMA has a close relationship with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that continues to benefit the territory. "We are preparing to deal with the territory's anticipated emergencies," he said, and "adequate funding is critical to fulfilling that commitment." Berry also raised homeland security issues with McBean. The committee learned that the V.I. Homeland Security Council has met just once since being created by executive order of the governor last month and that the adjutant general has not received the local portion of $300,000 to set up the Office of Homeland Security.
McBean told Berry he would be willing to head the new office but that he does not believe it should be a cabinet-level position. "There are 18 other adjutant generals that do the same thing I do," he said.
V.I Public Television
WTJX-TV general manager Lori Elskoe-Rawlins requested a FY 2004 operating budget of $2.6 million. "There is no better reason for supporting the Virgin Islands Public Television System's operating and capital budgets than to preserve our station's inspiration, education and illumination in this community," she told the senators.
Committee members present at the hearing were Sens. Donastorg, Roosevelt David, Louis Hill, Malone and Renee. Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Ronald Russell were absent. Sens. Berry and Celestino A. White Sr., who are not members of the committee, also were present.
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