June 5, 2005 With the hurricane season upon us and the Legislature's budget hearings beginning in July, officials from the V.I. National Guard, the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency and the V.I. Office of Homeland Security took their opportunity to tell senators about their financial woes at a meeting Friday at the National Guard's Estate Princess headquarters. The meeting, initiated by Senate President Lorraine Berry, was a chance for senators "to gain a full understanding of the National Guard and Air National Guard's operations in the territory." During the briefing, which included a tour of the Estate Bethlehem Armory complex, senators heard numerous appeals for increased funding and revisions to the V.I. Code.
"We are grossly and severely underfunded," Brig. Gen. Eddy G. L. Charles Sr. told senators. As V.I. National Guard Adjutant General, Charles is also the executive director of V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) and the newly created V.I. Office of Homeland Security. Charles said the Office of Management and Budget routinely cuts third-quarter allotments for the three agencies, causing shortfalls until new monies come in. Charles said the reduction of local funds leads to decreased training, personnel reductions, decreased vehicle and building maintenance and an inability to pay utilities and other bills. Charles also noted that the allotment reduction affects the availability of federal money, which requires matching funds. In 2004, local government funds equaled $1.6 million with $28 million in matching federal funds. Charles said the agency is in the process of improving communications between the Guard, VITEMA and the Office of Homeland Security through internet and intranet capabilities. Funding for that project has been approved through federal funds.
Capt. Marise James, a military attorney and legal advisor, said senators need to make amendments to the V.I. Code to make the Guard more appealing for present and retired personnel and new recruits. For instance, James said part-time guardsmen called to service have only 30 days of health coverage from their government job and that after that period, the coverage ends. Another issue, according to James, is government agencies, who "pose the most problems" when military personnel request leave to participate in guard activities. "These are issues that need to be addressed," James said.
James then asked the senators to "issue a statement of support" for part-time Guard members working in government jobs.
Lt. Col. Edward Richards, manager of Recruiting and Retention, then addressed the issue of recruiting high school graduates. He said the V.I. Guard recruits 11th-grade students who can participate in a paid military summer program stateside and then return home to complete their final year of high school.
Richards said the Guard needs to be made more appealing to students so they can stay in the territory, complete college and then go into the work force. He said the problem is that students usually opt to join an active-duty program because active-duty personnel receive 128 free undergraduate credits, while V.I. Guard members receive only 32 free credits. Richards said local lawmakers need to address this disparity.
Harold Baker, VITEMA director, said the agency is in need of funds. "We need your help," he told the senators. Baker said it will take $2 million to repair hurricane sirens located around the island. In the meantime, Baker said the Emergency Broadcast System, broadcast via radio and television stations, will be used to alert residents of an impending disaster. He also noted that VITEMA is working with the Puerto Rico Seismic Network to place buoys in the territory's waters in order to monitor seismic activity and provide an early warning system for tsunamis.
Mel D. Vanterpool, director of the Office of Homeland Security, said his agency's success depends on an increase in its operating budget. The Homeland Security Act for the territory, unanimously approved by legislators in July 2004, called for the agency to have secure offices, an established public information/education component, its own personnel and new vehicles. Presently the agency is sharing space with VITEMA. "We have to be a priority," Vanterpool said.
Present at the meeting were Sens. Lorraine Berry and Norman Jn. Baptiste, Liston A. Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Juan Figueroa-Serville and Usie Richards.
Sens. Roosevelt David, Louis Patrick Hill, Neville James and Ronald E. Russell were represented by staff members.
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