July 22, 2005 – No fireworks went off, nor were accounts disputed as Dean Plaskett, commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, spoke Friday for over an hour on his department's proposed $34 million budget for fiscal year 2006.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, chairman of the Finance Committee, said that in his opinion, no matter what recent media reports said, he thought Plaskett was dedicated and doing his job well.
Sen. Roosevelt Davis went as far as wondering whether DPNR could disengage itself from the government, so it did not get "contaminated by the other departments."
In his opening statement, Plaskett told the senators that 60 percent of the $34 million budget (roughly $20 million) is comprised of federal grants, while approximately $6 million, or 17.4 percent, will come from the General Fund. Additionally, $2.7 million, roughly 8 percent, will come from the Internal Revenue Matching fund, which is used for the V.I. Rum restitution and mitigation project. The remaining $4.98 million, or 14.4 percent, will be funded by revenues generated by various divisions within the department.
Plaskett said the department expects the federal contribution to remain consistent with last year's contribution. He said the request from the V.I. general fund is up about $130,000.
Beyond this request, which was recommended by the Office of Management and Budget, he asked for $10,000 to operate the fish market and $247,000 to help with funding for Fish and Wildlife enforcement.
Plaskett said his original proposal to OMB was $9 million more and that there was negotiating between the two departments.
He said OMB officials said DPNR should not fund the fish market, but he has gotten so many comments from residents who want it that he wanted to continue funding it.
The DPNR now employs 236 people, but it could be employing 83 more. He said 58 positions have federal funds available and 25 could be funded from the general fund.
Plaskett said his department has problems attracting candidates for professional positions because the pay scale is so low. He said, "You can't offer $20,000 to an engineer when they know they can get $40,000 in the private sector."
DPNR also has trouble keeping its enforcement positions all filled because all officers have to go through the V.I. Police Department Academy. Plaskett said, "We would like to see more classes, but we understand the budget constraints of the police department."
Also contributing to the problem of filling the positions, according to Plaskett, are the slow bureaucratic process the government goes through hiring people and also the lack of qualified people for the jobs, which are mostly in the science field.
David and Sen. Usie Richards also questioned Plaskett about the Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan. David said he has been hearing about the plan "forever," and he was not going to hold his breath waiting for it to be implemented.
The plan was much discussed at last year's budget hearing.
(See "DPNR Covers Everything from Land Use to Library".)
Richards had sponsored legislation to get the plan moving. There were several public hearings held in the territory last year concerning the plan. Many residents criticized the plan for being based on outdated facts.
Plaskett said, "We realize that significant changes in population, in what property is used for, and in a lot of things since the plan was originally drawn up."
Richards said he would like to meet with Plaskett and see if they could come up with a strategy to get the plan back on track.
Richards said he would also like to have a dialogue develop between the legislature and DPNR on energy policies for the territory.
Claudette Lewis, DPNR assistant commissioner, gave a presentation about the territory libraries. She said a lot was being done but more money was needed to "bring these institutions into the 21st century.
She pointed out that Sen. Liston Davis was holding pubic hearings on the state of the libraries in September.
Plaskett said this was the seventh budget hearing he has attended. He said when he took over the department in 1999 its total budget was $19 million.
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