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Senate Committee Takes on Veteran's Issues

Feb. 17, 2005 – Retired Gen. Samuel Ebbesen told senators Thursday the construction of the Veterans' Multi-Purpose Complex at the site of the old Virgin Isle Hotel is ahead of schedule and should be completed within 16 to 17 months.
Ebbesen was testifying at a Senate Housing, Veterans Affairs and Sports Committee hearing called by committee Chairman Sen. Celestino White Sr., who is also a veteran, to assess the areas over which the committee has oversight.
Ebbesen, veteran and president of Veterans Resources Inc., is one of the main principals in the low-cost housing and medical complex being built.
"This center will provide first-class, affordable housing as well as medical services currently not available in the territory," Ebbesen said, adding, "This project is a win-win situation for our veterans."
Ebbesen said the complex would consist of one and two bedroom apartments as well as three-bedroom bungalows. (See Housing and Medical Relief on the Way for Vets").
In offering testimony on current services to veterans in the territory, Jeanette Diaz, associate director of the San Juan Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said 438 St. Thomas veterans and 567 St. Croix veterans received medical assistance from the clinics on their islands since last October.
Sen. Usie Richards asked Myrian Zayas, director of beneficiary travel, whether veterans' companions are reimbursed for travel expenses when traveling with them to Puerto Rico to receive medical treatment.
Zayas, said a certain percentage of travel expenses are reimbursed for veterans' companions adding that if the veteran needed special assistance as in the case of an individual who is blind, that person's companion would receive full reimbursement. Sonia Moreno, director of the Veterans Benefits Administration Office in San Juan, told the committee that an employee of the Veterans Affairs regional office in San Juan works two days a week in the VA clinic of each of the V.I.'s island districts to provide benefits orientations, take claims and offer other services to the territory's veterans in coordination with the local Office of Veterans Affairs.
In response to questions from the senators about what kind of benefits her office provides for local veterans, Moreno said her office could provide some compensation to V.I. veterans if they were at least 10 percent disabled as a result of military service, adding the compensation would not be subject to state or federal income tax.
White asked whether V.I. National Guard veterans who have been called back into military service in the Middle East were being compensated if their wages prior to being recalled were higher than what they were currently receiving from the military.
Justin Harrigan Sr., director of the local Office of Veterans Affairs, told White once the veterans were recalled to active duty they were no longer veterans so his office would not be able address that issue. Harrigan said the soldier would have to contact the Department of Defense in cases where they earned more before being recalled to active duty.
Senate President Lorraine Berry raised concerns about reports she had received that several veterans being treated at the VA center in San Juan were being abused.
Berry said a former employee of the center, Dr. Socorro De San Gabriel, had written to her and informed her of cases where V.I. veterans had been badly treated at the VA hospital. Berry added hospital officials, upon hearing that Gabriel had contacted her, terminated her employment with the facility. Berry did not define the nature of the abuse.
"If our constituents travel to Puerto Rico for medical attention, they should be treated humanely," Berry said.
Berry urged White, in his capacity as chairman of the committee, to address the abuse matter during a trip he has committed to make to the Puerto Rico facility.
Also testifying before the committee Thursday were, Ira M. Hobson, commissioner of the Housing, Parks and Recreation Department; Clifford Graham, executive director, Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority; Norma Pickard-Samuel, chairwoman of the St. Thomas Horse Racing Commission; Adelbert Bryan, operating manager of Traxco Racing; Louis Hassell Jr., chairman, St. Croix Horse Racing Commission; Leonard Bonnelli Sr. of the V.I. Olympic Committee and Renny Roker, chairman of Teens on the Green.
Moving on to housing issues, White expressed his ire at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Receiver Jose Bosque for refusing White's invitation to testify at the hearing to address the concerns of public housing.
"You cannot do as you wish and not report to this committee," White said, although there were no HUD representatives at the meeting. "These residents are our constituents; you are just the landlord."
White said Berry had spoken to HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson during her trip to Washington, and Jackson had told Berry that a letter of apology would be forthcoming.
Senators questioned Graham about the Mt. Pleasant development on St. Croix, where numerous complaints had come from residents about structural repairs that needed to be made.
Graham told the committee that they were working to resolve those issues with the contractor because the units were still under warranty.
Senators also questioned Hobson about the construction of a sports complex on St. Croix. Hobson said his department was looking at constructing a complex in the area of Estate Slob on St. Croix and another complex at Estate Nazareth on St. Thomas. Hobson said an investor has said he is willing to put up $25 million for the complex in Estate Nazareth and negotiations are in process.
"We are not asking the government for a dime," Hobson said.
However, Hobson said no investor had come forward for the complex on St. Croix and the government had said there was no money available for such a project right now.
Hobson said he was unable to get an investor because of issues with the land where the complex is to be built. The Agriculture Department claims the land in Estate Slob belongs to them, and it is currently being leased to farmers.
But Sen. Ronald Russell thinks differently. "I know the plans to put a sports complex on St. Croix have existed for a long time," he said, adding it was time to move forward because he believes money and land are available.
Hobson replied, "I think we need to get our house in order," adding the land issue must be settled first.
According to the release, Roker asked the committee for a $250,000 appropriation for a Teens on the Green tournament to be aired on CBS.
Bonelli also requested an additional $250,000 for the V.I. Olympic Committee.
Committee members in attendance at the hearing were: Sens. Craig Barshinger, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Russell, Richards and White. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was absent. Also in attendance were Sens. Berry and Louis Hill, who are not committee members.

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