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HomeNewsArchivesNew Human Services Commissioner Requests $53 Million Budget

New Human Services Commissioner Requests $53 Million Budget

July 17, 2007 — Human Services defended its fiscal 2008 General Fund budget request of $53 million at a Finance Committee hearing in Frederiksted Monday.
That’s an increase of $4.4 million from last year. Other funds in their budget include $1 million from the crisis-intervention fund, which is a separate appropriation from the General Fund; $650,000 from the Internal Revenue matching fund; $1.5 million in fees and other local funds; and $26.5 million in federal grants. All of the department’s revenue sources combined bring the total Human Services budget for 2008 to $84.3 million.
Human Services oversees an array of safety-net agencies, including crisis intervention, services to seniors, child care, disability assistance and assistance to the needy and the blind. A few of the many programs under the department’s umbrella are Head Start, the food stamp offices, the Youth Rehabilitation Center and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. One in five residents used their services in some way last year.
Human Services Commissioner Chris Finch said the department recently finished an expansion to the Herbert Grigg Home for the Aged, allowing the facility to house 18 more frail seniors. He said $1.5 million of this year’s budget increase is slated for staffing and materials for the addition.
Finch received praise for the efficiency and fiscal accountability of his department.
“I note you have not changed many of your central staff positions,” Sen. Neville James said. “That’s good. Your department perennially ranks as the best-run department in the government. Thank you. Of course, that was prior to your arrival, so we will see how you do.”
Like many department heads, Finch asked the Legislature to grant his appropriation as a lump sum, to allow the department discretion and flexibility over the course of the year. Senators often do not grant money that way because of concern over financial management. Some of the senators were more agreeable in this case because of the department’s past performance.
“I can only speak for me, but I am serious about helping Human Services” Sen. Carlton Dowe said. “Over time, your department has proven capable of managing your budget, so this is once case where I have no problem with a lump-sum budget.”
The Youth Rehabilitation Center on St. Croix saw substantial senatorial scrutiny. Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste said he had received letters and calls from constituents complaining of insufficient beds and poor conditions, and a report of an alleged assault on a female client by a staff member at the women’s center within the YRC.
“There was an allegation,” Finch said. “The officer in question, we immediately put him on leave. I don’t want to draw any conclusions as to what happened, just that we proceeded immediately to address the situation. It is being looked into right now.”
The YRC needs work, Finch said.
“The female wing is inadequate,” he said. “We have an unfunded mandate to accommodate anyone sent there by the courts. But it holds five people before we have to put someone on the floor.”
Finch said he would like to demolish part of the YRC compound and renovate other buildings.
“Are the facilities safe?” asked Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson.
“We have some doors that need work, and there is exposed rebar that could be a hazard,” Finch said. “I understand you have to be politic, but I am gathering from the way some of your staff is looking around there may be some safety issues there,” Nelson said.
James said it created a hardship for St. Thomas families when a child was sent over to the YRC on St. Croix, and he asked Finch if there were any plans to build a facility on St. Thomas.
“Our view is the current YRC needs a tremendous amount of renovation, so if I had the funds for a new facility, I would first want to bring the facility we have up to standard.”
James was not satisfied with that answer.
“I can’t accept that excuse — you can use that year after year,” James said. “The court is telling us parents should have some access to their children. I am hoping there will some serious consideration about getting YRC where it should be and serious consideration of a new facility on St. Thomas.”
Sen. Liston Davis asked Finch what plans he had to tackle homelessness, and what impact his department was having.
“We have not made much of an impact as of yet,” Finch said. “We have spent time studying programs that have been successful across the U.S. We are also looking at a cost-benefit analysis, because if we understand the financial costs of homelessness to the police, to hospitals and other government agencies, I believe we will find the cost of housing is far lower than the costs we are incurring on a daily basis right now. We are committed to tackling the problem.”
“I hear the word commitment a lot from government agencies,” Davis said. “I want to see progress. In a small community, we see new faces on the streets, young faces that are now homeless and wandering. … It is about to become a crisis and envelop us if we don’t seriously address it beyond the buzz word ‘commitment.’”
Tuesday’s hearing was preliminary. The Human Services budget will be addressed in more detail and possibly amended in upcoming budget hearings.
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