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Senators Praise Berry, Discuss Budgets

Senators and government officials took time to honor the life of former Senator Lorraine Berry before getting down to the business of dollars and cents Tuesday.

Senator Carlton “Ital” Dowe asked everyone in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall to observe a moment of silence for Berry, who died Monday evening after a battle with colon cancer.

“This entire institution clearly feels a great sense of loss,” said Senate President Louis Patrick Hill. He said he was ordering flags flown at half staff.

Department of Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch, appearing before the committee on Appropriations and Budget to defend his department’s plans for fiscal year 2011, said that Berry had been a strong supporter of his department.

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Turning to the subject of money, Finch described a department struggling to stay afloat with a rapidly rising elderly population and high demand for assistance with things like food and shelter.

“Human Services is a department that becomes busier as the economy worsens,” Finch told senators.

The department plans to spend about $133 million next year, with funds coming from federal and local government and going toward aid for food, energy and housing for Virgin Islanders in need.

He said the number of elderly in the territory is increasing and that the system is not set up to handle the growing numbers. The department pays rent for many seniors because they are on waiting lists for senior housing – in fact 42 percent of their budget goes toward funding residential services.

Dowe said he was committed to finding a way to make sure the elderly, sick and homeless are taken care of. He said he was especially interested in finding a way to finance new senior housing for seniors.

Officials from the Bureau of Corrections also went before senators Tuesday with their plans for fiscal year 2011. The amount suggested by the governor’s office for next year was about $28 million, with the largest portion going toward personnel services. That is a 7.55 percent increase over last year.

Director Julius Wilson said the bureau was looking for ways to save or make money through a farming program where inmates would grow fruits and vegetables, a fishing program where the prisons would raise their own fish, and license plate production.

Senators asked Wilson whether he was using funds to adequately take care of both the prisoners and the people employed to look over them.

Senator Wayne A.G. James asked whether inmates had access to education that would help them be useful citizens once they reentered the outside world. Wilson told him it sometimes takes the inmates a while to realize they must take responsibility for their own lives, but once they do, there are trade classes available to them.

Hill asked whether corrections officers underwent any formal training before beginning their jobs. Wilson said they relied mostly on on-the-job training from veterans in the corrections system. He said corrections officers receive 80 to 100 hours of on-the-job training.

“Overall, I really feel they’ve been adequately trained,” he said.

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