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Little Progress Being Made to Acquire Lindqvist, Vessup Beaches

July 27, 2006–The acquisition of two St. Thomas beaches and salary adjustments for Justice employees were two of several issues discussed during the first round of budget hearings Thursday, as representatives from the Department of Justice testified in support of an approximately $33.1 million General Fund budget request.
In response to questions from Sen. Louis P. Hill, chairman of the Finance Committee, regarding how much progress the government has made toward purchasing Lindqvist Beach, Attorney General Kerry Drue said the department is currently awaiting appraisals on the value of the property. "The owners of the beach have been asking us to sit down and discuss the issue with them," she said. "But what they were asking for was astronomical–something like $12 million. And now the property has been put on the market for $9 million."
Solicitor General Elliot McIver Davis said the government currently has approximately $4.1 million available for the purchase of the property and would be going to the Senate or the Public Finance Authority (PFA) for additional money if needed.
Drue said the government also plans to appeal the decision made earlier this year by Judge Brenda Hollar, who ruled against the government's motion to condemn the property, thus allowing it to be taken by eminent domain after paying the appraised value on the land to the owners (See "Battle Continues for Lindqvist Beach").
Hill also questioned Justice officials about the whether the government has made any progress toward purchasing Vessup Bay, for which $3 million was appropriated by the Legislature in 2004.
Both Drue and Davis said they were not aware funds were available for the purchase.
In response, Hill said that the money has already been transferred from the PFA to the central government's account. "The money is clearly available," he said. "But what's going on here is that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has simply decided to disregard the law and not acquire Vessup. And that's just sad. So, I'm asking you to make a decision and purchase the beach for the people of the Virgin Islands."
During the meeting, senators said various members of the executive branch are also responsible for holding up other Justice efforts, including adjusting the salaries for the department's employees.
According to Dian Brady, acting director of operations for Justice, a ranking system for Justice employees has to be put in place before a step increase can be implemented. Until then, increases to DOJ employees are based solely on the number of years an employee has worked within the system, she said.
Brady added that Justice submitted a proposal last June to the Personnel Division for review. "All we need to do is sit down with them to discuss the plan," she said. "But we haven't been able to pull anything together. And these salary increases have to be authorized by the Personnel Director before they can be implemented."
The inability to increase salaries for several critical positions–including much-needed corrections officers–has hampered the department's ability to recruit qualified individuals to the fill the department's 172 vacancies, she said. Brady added that the department is currently short-staffed in all of its divisions and loses many attorneys to "more attractive" positions offered throughout the territory and on the mainland.
Brady could not say how many vacancies exist within each division nor could she say how many vacancies are provided for in this year's budget request. However, she said that all vacancies are currently fully funded, due to a recent $5.9 million appropriation made by the Legislature.
When asked why those funds have not yet been spent, Brady said that many of the vacancies would be filled when the department's new forensics unit–located near the Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix–comes online. She added that recruiting staff to fill these positions has also been difficult, since many applicants have not been able to pass various medical and psychological tests administered by the Personnel Division.
Some of the department's employees are also funded through federal grants. According to a report generated by the Legislature's Post Audit Division, Justice received approximately $3.2 million worth of federal grants for fiscal years 2004 and 2005.
However, Drue said a portion of that grant money has not yet been spent, which has resulted in a $1.8 million decrease in federal funds awarded to the department for use in FY 2007.
Since both grants awarded for 2004 and 2005 have expired, Drue said the department has applied for a year's extension so the remaining money could be obligated. However, she could not say how much federal money has been spent to date or how much the department has left to obligate.
She did say, however, that the department has received approximately $3.8 million in federal funds for 2006, which would be added to Justice's FY 2007 operating budget–bringing this year's total budget figure up to $36.9 million.
To make up for a possible shortfall caused by the lack of federal funding, Brady said the department would be submitting a $2 million supplemental budget to the Legislature within the next two months.
Drue could not say what the $2 million would be used for.
This year's General Fund request reflects a $3 million increase over last year's appropriation. Drue said the additional money would primarily be used to fund negotiated salary increases.
Present during Thursday's meeting were Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, and Usie R. Richards.
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