Sept. 13, 2006 — Senators put their stamp of approval Tuesday on an approximately $828 million executive budget, which includes new appropriations for various social and youth programs, health care initiatives and capital improvement projects.
Despite the $79 million increase – in May, the original executive budget bill sent down by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull totaled $749 million – senators called the budget "conservative," "sound" and "well within the revenue projections" given by members of the government's financial team.
According to Sen. Louis P. Hill, chair of the Senate's Finance Committee, V.I. officials recently adjusted government revenue projections upward to $835 million for FY 2007. "So we're working well within the bounds of what we have," he said after a committee meeting held Tuesday.
Senators said they took advantage of the increased revenue projections, appropriating more money for government departments and agencies to pay utility bills. During the meeting, senators specifically mentioned the fact that an additional $6 million was appropriated to the territory's two hospitals to pay outstanding debts owed the Water and Power Authority.
In recent budget hearings, WAPA officials have said money owed by the hospitals is contributing to the utility's financial problems. However, the hospitals' two chief executive officers said they were having trouble identifying enough money to take care of the debts.
Senators took these concerns to heart during the budget markup process, Hill said, and identified an extra $2 million for Schneider Regional Medical Center on St. Thomas and another $4 million for Juan F. Luis on St. Croix.
Schneider Regional also received an additional $2 million increase for a category line itemed as "other services and charges," which brings the hospital's total General Fund budget up from $26 million (the amount initially recommended by the Office of Management and Budget) to approximately $30 million.
In the miscellaneous section of the budget – which totals approximately $191.4 million – another $3 million is now earmarked for the Charlotte Kimelman Cancer Institute, along with $5 million for the new Cardiac Center at Juan Luis.
"This budget is not a rubber stamp budget," Sen. Neville James said during Tuesday's Finance Committee meeting. "The first thing we did was make adjustments for water and power, since the departments had been submitting utility costs that are 10 percent of what they actually have to pay."
Senators said that budget increases were also given to various departments and agencies to accommodate additional personnel or program costs. The University of the Virgin Islands, for example, received a $3.5 million increase, which include $29.1 million for salaries for regular and temporary employees, along with "incidental expenses."
During a recent budget meeting, UVI President LaVerne Ragster had requested an additional $2.6 million to provide faculty and staff with a 3 percent increase in salaries, cover rising utility costs, fund a classification study and maintain the university's equipment and facilities.
During Tuesday's meeting, Sen. Craig W. Barshinger said a slight budget increase (approximately $1.3 million) was given to the Department of Health for new ambulances and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) for all three islands.
According to Sen. Ronald E. Russell, adjustments were also made in the budgets for the Superior Court and the Territorial Public Defender.
At the start of budget hearings in June, OMB Director Ira Mills said $44.9 million was to be split between the Legislature, Superior Court, V.I. Judicial Council and the Territorial Public Defender. According to the revised budget bill, almost $26.4 million is earmarked for the Superior Court, along with nearly $429,100 for the Judicial Council and $3 million for the Territorial Public Defender.
Hill said he hopes the Legislature's budget will be introduced during a Rules Committee meeting scheduled for Thursday.
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