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Legislature Gets Updated on Stimulus Funds

A mind-numbing array of figures, charts, graphs, acronyms and testimony highlighted Wednesday’s Legislative Committee of the Whole meeting on the status of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds, commonly called Stimulus Funds, received by the territory. It was held at the Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.

“We need to have a full picture,” said Senate President Ronald Russell, noting that it’s needed because the Legislature will soon start budget hearings.

Several senators said it was far too much information to absorb at one sitting.

“I’ll have to take it home and make sense of it,” Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson said.

Most of the testimony focused on the latest Stimulus Fund report that closed Dec. 31, 2011. Another report is due June 30.

The territory stands to receive a total of $366.8 million in ARRA funds, which were approved by the U.S. Congress in 2009 to stimulate the nation’s failing economy.

According to testimony by Angel Dawson, the territory’s finance commissioner, who also serves as the Public Finance Authority director, $283.6 million was expended by Dec. 31. He said another $80.9 million was obligated.

While many of the grants have already wrapped up or will finish in 2012, Marian Prescod, president of 3 P Inc., which helps manage the grants, said the last of them run until 2015.

According to Dawson, the money is going to fund 180 projects across the territory, and the Legislature heard from representatives on the projects.

Prescod said the projects created 579 jobs, some of them part time and others full time, but Nelson said several times that the number was insufficient.

At issue for some of the senators was the improvement of territory’s Internet capability by V.I. Next Generation Network, an arm of the PFA. Next Generation Network President Lawrence Kupfer said the agency had four grants totaling $67.5 million to improve Internet service.

Dawson acknowledged that there had been problems with the Next Generation grants, but said things were in the midst of being resolved.

He said that there were no problems with other grants.

“We’re not sending any ARRA funds back,” Dawson said.

While most of the more than 20 people who testified agreed that they would spend all their grant money, a couple of testifiers said that they wouldn’t quite make 100 percent.

Gail Jackson, who serves as the immunization director at the Health Department, said that the department was unable to hire the required data entry operators so it had money left over.

Prescod, who presented information for the Law Enforcement Planning Commission because agency officials didn’t show up, said the agency was lagging in spending its money but that it had until next year to do so. That didn’t sit well with Russell or Sen. Craig Barshinger, the only two senators left at the meeting as it wound down.

“LEPC needs to be here more than anyone else to explain why they’re not using the money,” Barshinger said, indicating that the planning commission had spent only 38 percent of its money.

In other information that came to light during the eight hours of testimony, Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls said his department plans to buy a vessel to provide ferry service between Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas and Christiansted, St. Croix.

Wystan Benjamin, who heads DPW’s Federal Highway Program, said he expects the ferry to begin operating in five or six months.

Smalls said the request for proposal “will go out shortly.”

Ferry service between the two islands ceased nearly a year ago when the Royal Miss Belmar went on the rocks at Great St. James, an island off St. John.

Benjamin said the vessel will serve as a stopgap until Public Works has a combination passenger and vehicle ferry constructed to run on the same route.

In other Public Works news, Smalls said he expects the Christiansted bypass to open in October.

During the testimony,other tidbits came to light. Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch said that $24,799 of its $6.7 million in stimulus grants went to fund a bereavement camp for 26 children whose parents were homicide victims. He said the camps would continue using other funds.

Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Alicia Barnes said that Cowpet Bay East condominiums received $87,400, Sapphire Beach Condominiums received $247,410 and Reef Condominiums received $246,236 under a drinking water grant for improvements in their reverse osmosis systems. She said this was allowable because grant funds can be made to small water suppliers that make water for 3,300 people or less.

Masarae Sprauve-Webster, the chief executive officer at the Frederiksted Health Center, said that its services are available to all.

“We have a sliding fee if you’re uninsured,” she said.

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