July 31, 2005 — Finance Committee hearings sparked a lot of talk about jobs and money. It seems nobody has enough of either.
Economic Development Authority Director Frank Schulterbrandt led the show on Monday saying that his budget request for $4.3 million for fiscal year 2006 will allow the EDA to take ads out in international magazines, and allow for meetings with representatives from the Asian and European markets.
This will probably keep the big shots in government happy and busy, but he offered little hope for any one without a college education.
Schulterbrandt said many companies are pulling out of the territory in order to reap the benefits of cheaper labor costs elsewhere.
"We must adjust our economic development strategy to compete for service-oriented companies, which require a college degree and highly skilled individuals who are technologically trained for evolving economies," Schulterbrandt said.
All this talk did not make St. Croix Sens. Juan Figueroa-Serville, Norman Jn. Baptiste, and Louis P. Hill happy.
Baptiste realistically pointed out that not everyone on St. Croix is going to get a college education.
(See "EDA Officials: St. Croix 'Unattractive' to Some Outside Investors".)
Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Andrew Rutnik also showed up at the Senate and asked for a $2.5-million budget increase to supplement cuts made in employee salaries over past years.
Rutnik said raises begin with additional funding for legal counsel positions, which are below U.S. standards. "I am sad to say that our General Counsel ($60,000) and our District Counsel ($55,000) are some of the lowest paid in all of government," Rutnik said.
Hmm, he might find it hard for those poor lawyers to get sympathy from the hotel workers and the unskilled workers, who vote for the senators and are trying to survive on $12,000 a year.
However, his point can't be argued as Dean Plaskett, commissioner at Department of Planning and Natural Resources, was testifying before the committee last week that he could not get qualified engineers at the wages his department was offering, but those wages were only in the $30,000 and $40,000 range. Lawyers must just think themselves more valuable than engineers and just about every one else.
(See "DLCA Requests $2.5M Budget Increase".)
Moving right along through the week the statements made Monday by Rutnik about renewing business licenses without additional fire inspections infuriated representatives from Fire Services.
"I believe that the DLCA blatantly disregards the law in this case," Merwin C. Potter, director of V.I. Fire Services, said. "In most cases, this decision comes back to haunt our organization."
Potter also refuted Rutnik's claims that this situation is due to the presence of three fire inspectors for every 10,000 businesses in the Virgin Islands.
"We are understaffed, but there are nine inspectors to meet these needs, and were trying to juggle various other problems as well," Potter said.
(See "Fire Services, Nursing Officials Unhappy With Budget Cuts".)
Winifred L. Garfield, executive secretary of the V.I. Board of Nurse Licensure, testified that qualified nurses in the Virgin Islands worked other jobs because pay was so bad.
The Senate Finance budget hearings are not only a chance for senators to probe into what is going on in each department, but it is also a chance for department heads to get out their side of the story.
Bureau of Internal Revenue Director Louis Willis did just that Tuesday afternoon, rebuking questions about his leadership capabilities.
He said, "There were people who questioned my qualifications, said I didn't have enough degrees, etc . But I think that my department is the best in the government. We've brought in $485.5 million in collections so far this year, and I project that number will increase to $610 million by the end of this fiscal year," (See "IRB Collections Top $485 Million".)
While the talk goes on and on about what needs to be done to help people get jobs, Sen. Nelson tried to move beyond the talk. On Wednesday, in partnership with Hovensa, he held the first of a series of forums aimed to help workers find better jobs. (See St. Croix Source story "Hovensa Starts Job Prep Courses".)
Apparently one of the problems causing difficulty for government departments in keeping up with their utility bills is the line-item budget that has to be presented to the Senate. Fuel and power costs in recent years have had dramatic increases.
A lump-sum budget could alleviate this problem. Now, departments cannot just transfer money from one account to another.
However, when Office of Management and Budget Director Ira Mills presented a proposal for a lump-sum budget, he met with strong opposition. It appears that the senators look at department heads like parents look at teenage children who have shown they can't be trusted.
Nelson told Mills that most senators would have a hard time approving lump-sum budget requests because they are concerned that most departments would mismanage the funds. "Once the money is in your possession, you could do whatever you wanted to do with it and theres no good accounting system to show where it would be going," Nelson said. (See "Senators Wary of OMB's Request for Lump-Sum Budget").
On Thursday Alberto Bruno-Vega, chief executive officer of the V.I. Water and Power Authority, got to propose what he thought would resolve the departments' problems paying their utility bills. He suggested that the central government just pay the department's utility bills for them. (See "WAPA Gives Central Government Reprieve, Payment Options").
On Thursday afternoon senators got good news from West Indian Company Ltd. President Edward E. Thomas. He said that increased cruise ship activity in the next year will help to rebuild St. Croix and sustain St. Thomas' growing economy.
Thomas said there were 1.7 million visitors to the territory this year and added that this number would only pick up as more cruise ships are built and contracted to visit the Virgin Islands.
However, when specifically addressing St. Croix he did not sound so upbeat. He said more marketing of the island had to be done and things for tourists to do while on the island had to be found. Funny that no one had ever thought of that before.
Then it was back to a more normal hearing late in the afternoon as the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation and the V.I. Labor Management Committee both showed up asking for more money than senators wanted to give.
Asking for $144,000, VILMC Executive Director Sylvia D. Sargeant-Perry said that severe budget cuts imposed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in the past few years has hampered her organization's ability to provide employee training for various government departments and agencies.
Senators were less polite with members from the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation than they were with Sargeant-Perry. Citing inadequate sports facilities, deplorable housing conditions and an "archaic" system of accounting, committee members were even hesitant to consider the department's $5.2 million request.
"You haven't even submitted us all of your financial information," Sen. Usie Richards said, adding tha
t the department had records and reports in piles and boxes in its facilities. "How do you expect us to give you the money you're asking for when you don't give us the information?"
(See "WICO Hearing Focuses on Economic Growth").
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