July 25, 2006–An operating budget of $550,000 for fiscal year 2007 would help the Legal Services of the Virgin Islands "maintain the status quo," attorney Richard Austin told senators during the second round of budget hearings Tuesday.
During the meeting, Austin, the organization's executive director, said additional money could be used to pay off mortgage loans for facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix, to hire at least two new attorneys and to offer a salary increase to current employees.
However, he said the proposed budget request–a $250,000 increase over last year's appropriation–would fund a "modest" salary increase for the organization's staff and cover increased insurance and utility costs. A one-time appropriation of $50,000 also included in the budget would allow Legal Services to complete the second phase of renovations to the St. Thomas Community Law Center Complex.
"Therefore, I urge you to at least approve the $550,000 appropriation," Austin said. "By doing so, you would be supporting our mission of equal access to justice for all."
Legal Services provides free legal services to "the poor, the disadvantaged, victims of domestic violence and the elderly" in civil matters.
While senators had few questions about the organization's budget, they did suggest that Legal Services combine services with the office of the Territorial Public Defender, which offers legal assistance to low-income residents in criminal matters.
Senators had several questions, however, for representatives from the Law Revision Commission, who presented a $290,000 budget request for FY 2007.
"If you look at the annual allotments made to the commission over the years and compare that to the number of things you guys have accomplished over the years, it would seem that the commission has been a complete failure," Sen. Louis P. Hill, chairman of the Finance Committee, said.
Hill suggested that the Legislature hold off appropriating more money and instead work on restructuring the commission, or bringing some of its services under the office of the Legislature's legal counsel.
Currently, the commission is responsible for updating the V.I. Code to include changes made by the Senate to current laws, and submitting bills to the Legislature outlining possible revisions.
In response to Hill's comments, Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the commission's chairman, said the organization would be better able to fulfill its duties if it received more funding from the Legislature. He said the commission sought a supplemental budget request last year and used the money to hire an attorney. "However, we didn't expect that the contract would not work out," Malone said. "But once we got the money, we moved expeditiously to put someone in place and continue our job."
Hill disagreed, stating that the commission has not submitted any new revisions to the V.I. Code in at least the past 10 years. "It doesn't seem to me as if you've produced anything," he said.
Sharon Lake-Peets, the commission's executive director, argued that the organization has been hindered over the years by a number of factors, including a lack of funding and the inability to hire a permanent staff attorney. "Additionally, commission members only serve terms of two years, which disrupts the continuity of our work," she said. "But the fact still remains that we would not be able to perform until we are given the proper resources. We need a legal counsel to do the required work."
She said that $85,000 is included in this year's budget for a new staff attorney.
Also included in the commission's budget is: $85,340 for personnel costs; $332,198 for fringe benefits; $9,910 for supplies; $14,750 for the printing and publishing of revised V.I. Code volumes; and $7,000 for utilities, among other things.
Present during Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill and Usie R. Richards.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste was absent
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