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Public Works Asks Senators for 7.3 Percent Budget Increase

July 16, 2008 — Wednesday morning the Senate Finance Committee considered Public Works' 2009 General Fund budget request of $30.6 million, an increase of $2.2 million, or 7.3 percent.
Public Works also expects to receive $21.3 million in Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration grants, Public Works Commissioner Darryl A. Smalls told the committee.
Major projects such as the Christiansted Bypass on St. Croix, Long Bay Road and Turpentine Run Bridge continue apace, as do smaller projects in Whim, Glynn, final work on Midland Road and bridges in Mon Bijou, he said. But the territory's roads need more.
"Although the Department of Public Works Continues to make significant strides, there remains a material shortfall in the availability of funds needed to embark on critical infrastructure improvements," Smalls said, He suggested the Legislature consider providing an annual dedicated revolving fund source for the department so it can plan more realistically over the long term.
Going over the department's list of vacant positions, Sen. Liston Davis commented on the low pay of many positions, saying he thought $22,000 a year for a mason or a plumber was very low, and asking whether the majority of these positions are unionized. Smalls said they were.
"Get rid of that union," Davis responded. "A carpenter making $20,000 — it is ridiculous when the top echelon is making $140,000 and $70,000, and the backbone of the division is making very low wages."
Smalls agreed.
"One of our challenges is salaries," he said. "They say, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'"
Sen. Neville James asked about progress on the Christiansted Bypass. Large-scale hauling of material in and out of the road area should be complete in about another two months, said Territorial Highway Manager Wystan Benjamin. The first phase is supposed to be complete by the end of the calendar year. Asked when people would be able to begin driving on the bypass, Benjamin estimated it would be another 18 months from the completion of Phase 1, so about two more years from now.
Vitran bus service is languishing, with buses that are too few and too old, Smalls said. Nonetheless, demand is strong, and the bus system generated $400,000 in revenue last year — much less than the $6.4 million subsidy Public Works plans to give Vitran this year. The current 50-cent and one-dollar fares have been unchanged for 18 years, and with higher fares and more buses to meet increasing demand, the system could be more efficient and generate more revenue, Smalls said.
No votes were taken. In attendance were Davis, Sens. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Usie Richards, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Juan Figueroa-Serville, James Weber III, Neville James and Basil Ottley Jr.
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