Aug. 17, 2006 – More local funding is needed to offset the loss of federal funds awarded to emergency management agencies throughout the territory, representatives from the Office of the Adjutant General told senators during the first round of budget hearings Thursday.
According to Mel Vanterpool, director of the V.I. Office of Homeland Security, the cuts are being felt "nationwide," as a proposed $1.7 billion budget for U.S. Homeland Security efforts was recently decreased by approximately $750 million.
"These cuts have affected us by almost 50 percent," he said. "This year, the Virgin Islands received a grant award of only $2.7 million–down from our last grant of about $4.2 million. And we have been told to expect additional cuts in the years ahead. Our ability for sustainability hangs in the balance."
Vanterpool added that a lack of federal funding in the future could greatly hamper security efforts for the territory, which has "over 200 miles of unprotected shoreline," a growing population of illegal immigrants and a "continuous" flow of illegal weapons and drugs.
While the local executive branch has recommended a Fiscal Year 2007 budget of $321,793 for the V.I. Office of Homeland Security, Vanterpool said he would need at least $400,000 more to make sure the agency stays in compliance with federal mandates.
The additional money would cover the cost of two employees for the agency's St. Croix office, along with $50,000 worth of office equipment, $10,000 for travel and $210,000 to supplement the federal grant shortfall.
Currently, the federal Homeland Security funds are used to purchase equipment and to cover the cost of training and holding exercises for employees.
Similarly, Harold Baker, director of the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, said his office could use at least another $120,000 to complete repairs to the emergency operations center (EOC) on St. Croix.
"The St. Croix EOC is a sieve when it rains and the resulting mold and dampness renders that facility virtually uninhabitable," Baker said, adding that he has been requesting funds to repair the building for the last three years.
"The St. John EOC is in a similar dilemma, and must be fixed as well," he said.
Sen. Louis P. Hill, chairman of the Finance Committee, said he would "personally make sure" the $120,000 is added to this year's executive budget. "If it's not included, then I will vote against the entire budget," Hill said.
Adjutant General Col. Eddy Charles said that VITEMA has other challenges, including an "inoperable" communications system, a lack of proper staff to man the EOCs, and the inability to fill critical vacancies and upgrade the salaries of "qualified employees."
Baker explained that program managers working within the agency are currently paid wages which are "far below the market level" and not "commensurate with their work experience."
While Baker said he does have the ability to increase the salaries, he explained that he has not been able to do so because of a lack of funding.
"Our federal funding has been maximized in all these efforts and we're looking now to you for help," Charles said, explaining that the V.I. government must at least contribute enough funds to match the money awarded by the federal government.
"It is important that we don't suffer a cut on the local level as well, or federal dollars will be returned," he said.
One such area that could be impacted if a local match is not provided is the maintenance of the armories on St. Thomas and St. Croix, Charles said. The Virgin Islands is required to provide a 25 percent funding match in order to receive money to maintain the armory on St. Croix, and a 50 percent match for the armory on St. Thomas.
Charles added that both facilities are in a state of disrepair, and that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull had recently authorized a $750,000 supplemental budget for repairs and renovations.
During the meeting, Charles also outlined other critical funding needs for the Office of the Adjutant General (OTAG), which also oversees VITEMA, the V.I. Office of Homeland Security and the V.I. National Guard. Charles primarily focused on the need to purchase a new facility on St. Thomas, and to upgrade the salaries of OTAG's 27 civilian employees.
OTAG's General Fund budget for FY 2007 currently stands at approximately $1.9 million, with about $1 million earmarked for the V.I. National Guard, and another $571,838 for VITEMA.
The U.S. National Guard Bureau is also expected to contribute approximately $2.37 in federal funds, while the V.I. Office of Homeland Security is anticipated to receive $654,248 from its federal counterpart–bringing OTAG's overall budget up to $4.9 million for FY 2007.
"What we need now is for our government and community to rally more financial support for us," Charles said, adding that the Legislature could also solve the agency's recruitment problems by amending the V.I. Code to provide additional benefits to National Guard members who have served a minimum of eight years.
He added that offering additional benefits could also be an incentive for more residents to come back, or stay within, the territory.
To justify the funding increases, Charles and other OTAG representatives gave senators an overview of some of the agency's accomplishments, including efforts in tsunami and hurricane preparedness, and national defense.
"What we have now is a seamless operation of the Guard, VITEMA and the V.I. Office of Homeland Security," Charles said.
Present during Thursday's meeting were Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Neville James and Norman Jn Baptiste.
Sen. Usie R. Richards was absent.
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