Sept. 21, 2006 — While the V.I. government's inability to fill vacant positions has been a cause for concern, the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday used that situation to the government's advantage.
During a Finance meeting held on St. Croix, senators helped various government departments and agencies find a way to spend millions of dollars worth of unused money allocated during fiscal year 2006 by unanimously approving several appropriations transfers.
The transfer requests put money earmarked in the FY 2006 budget for personnel costs — salaries for active government employees, along with vacant positions — toward outstanding obligations, such as back rent and utility payments.
Several testifiers during the meeting explained that the cost savings generally occur when a department or agency is unable to fill its vacant positions. Education Commissioner Noreen Michael added that some money is also saved when individuals resign or retire during the fiscal year, leaving a portion of their salary unused.
While senators said they were concerned about the departments' inability to fill vacant positions, representatives from the Office of Management and Budget said many government entities are having difficulty recruiting skilled workers.
"Some of the positions are extremely technical and hard to fill," Debra Gottlieb, deputy director for OMB, said during the meeting. "And it's also extremely challenging finding qualified individuals to come in at the salaries offered by some of the departments and agencies."
Claudette Lewis, acting assistant director for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, corroborated Gottlieb's statement, saying that candidates for many job positions are being paid around $22,000 when "they should be" receiving a $30,000 salary.
"We have workers with Ph.D.s who are being paid $37,000 because they elect to be classified employees," she said. "If they were to come in as exempt employees, they would get over $65,000."
Responding to Lewis' statements, Sen. Louis P. Hill, chair of the Finance Committee, said that the government's personnel problems are three-fold: "First, we have educated people who refuse to work for the government because of the unattractive starting salaries, and we're also seeing that the Division of Personnel does not have a real aggressive, structured recruitment process."
Hill added that the "fundamental problem seems to be" that there is a large population of "uneducated people" who are unable to fill many of the positions available within the departments and agencies.
Gottlieb said that in order to resolve these issues, Personnel, along with the Office of Collective Bargaining and OMB, have to "get together and look" at doing an "overall assessment" of the government's personnel structure, classification structure and pay scale.
Despite the explanations, senators said they were still concerned about the high number of vacancies within the departments and agencies — specifically within Education, which has 114 unfilled positions.
"The feeling and perception that I get is that the departments and agencies request money for positions that are not needed, so they can get more funding," Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville said. "Because some of them have between 50 and 150 vacancies, which have not been filled for more than two fiscal years — that's about $23 million tied up in vacancies that could have gone to other government services."
Michael assured senators that the department's vacant positions — which primarily represent teachers, maintenance workers and school monitors — were "critical" and should be filled during FY 2007.
In the meantime, Michael said the department's $4.3 million transfer request would cover various funding shortfalls, providing extra money for new equipment, infrastructure repairs and reimbursements to the federal government, among other things.
Senators said they were also concerned about the fact that some of the transfer requests reprogrammed money in a "lump-sum fashion," without showing what it would be used for. They were specifically concerned about two appropriation requests put in by the Department of Public Works, which transfers approximately $1.37 million from personnel to purchase new equipment and "pay for roads that are being repaired."
While senators approved the transfers at the end of the meeting, Sen. Usie R. Richards asked Hill to write a letter to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull requesting that $125,000 out of the $1.37 million requested by Public Works be earmarked for a specific drainage control project on St. Croix.
Senators also approved appropriation transfers for the:
–Department of Health in the amount of $2.25 million to cover supply, utility and capital outlay costs;
–DPNR in the amount of $435,371.69 to cover new equipment costs, the purchase of three new vehicles, repairs, rentals and utilities;
–Property and Procurement in the amount of $522,000 to cover rental costs, utilities and the purchase of new computers for the department;
–Bureau of Information Technology in the amount $252,290 to purchase new equipment to hook up government departments and agencies to the new Enterprise Resource Planning System;
–V.I. Drug Enforcement Bureau in the amount of $57, 813 to pay at least six months worth of rent owed on its facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix;
–Bureau of Motor Vehicles in the amount of $201, 113 for the purchase of new computers and supplies;
–Schneider Regional Medical Complex in the amount of $1.37 million to pay for outstanding utility costs and the purchase of new elevators for the facility; and
–Juan F. Luis Hospital in the amount of $909, 071 to pay for outstanding utility costs and salaries for contract nurses.
Present during Thursday's meeting were Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, and Richards.
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