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Departments Present Slim Budgets to Senate

Doing more with less was the message of the day as the Departments of Tourism, the Virgin Island Olympic Committee, and the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs presented their Fiscal Year 2013 budgets to the Senate Committee on Finance.

Licensing Commissioner Wayne Biggs Jr. called his proposed budget “tight” but “sufficient.” His department, which is in charge of enforcing consumer laws and issuing business and professional licenses, is seeking a total budget of $3,497,932. That is $241,107 less than their FY12 budget, a decrease of 7.22 percent.

Only $3,097,932 of the budget will come from the general fund. The rest will be taken from the Consumer Protection Fund, which is derived from the collection of license penalties and citation fines.

Usually this money is earmarked for costs associated with resolving consumer disputes and consumer education, but due to financial constraints it will be tapped to cover other costs, such as professional contracts, equipment and supplies.

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Licensing also cut back on its employees, declining to 44 from 53 in FY12. Biggs testified that the impact will not be as bad as it looks because several of these were “paper jobs,” unfilled positions that remained on the budget. The rest of the decrease resulted from retirements and resignations.

Biggs testified that his staff was now about as small as it could get. He said that over the last five years, Licensing and Consumer Affairs has lost about 30 percent of its employees and that those who remain are forced to fill several rolls.

“On many occasions they fill in for each other to assist our clients, and no one has complained it is not their job,” he said.

Biggs testified that one of his agency’s chief goals for the year will be to improve its website so people can apply for or renew their business licenses and professional licenses online.

Some of the senators present questioned the wisdom of cutting funding to a department that has the ability to raise money.

“There is revenue in enforcement,” said Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone.

The department has the power to collect fines from businesses for lapsed licenses and violating consumer law. Under the proposed budget, the total number of enforcement officers for the territory will be seven, four in the St. Croix District and three in the St. Thomas/St. John District.

Sen. Ronald E. Russell said he would like to see that number grow.

“You [should] have more ability to enforce and collect,” he said. “We need to prioritize that because we’re going through difficult times.”

Department of Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty said her department was seeking $2,766,377 from the general fund, about 11 percent less than in FY12.

The vast majority of funds for the DOT come from the Tourism Advertising Revolving Fund, which is derived from the hotel room tax. Doty said she estimated that after administrative obligations are met, they hope to see $15.3 million from that fund put towards the department’s advertising campaigns.

Doty testified that with the closing of Hovensa, the importance of the territory’s tourism industry has skyrocketed. However, at the same time that the Virgin Islands is trying to become a bigger attraction, the number of people in the United States looking to travel is decreasing due to the ongoing financial crisis.

Doty discussed a few strategies to overcome this trend, such as attracting more cruise ships, the development of sports and cultural tourism, and more aggressively targeting potential visitors in Brazil where the economy is doing well.

Again the senators questioned why the budget for a potentially money-generating department was decreasing rather than increasing.

“Do we need more money and more promotion to fulfill our tourism potential?” asked Sen. Craig W. Barshinger. “I know the governor has told you to cut your budget, but people have come to me, constituents, and they feel that it is very short-sighted to cut Tourism’s budget at a time when we’re depending on an expansion of tourism for our very survival.”

Barshinger was especially concerned about the development of tourism on St. Croix and asked Doty to brainstorm ways to “supercharge” tourism on the big island.

Virgin Islands Olympic Committee President Hans Lawaetz told the senators his organization would be requesting $300,000 in FY13. This is less than the $338,000 they were appropriated in FY12, but much more than the $100,000 they actually received from the government last year.

Lawaetz said the Olympic Committee was able to weather the shortfall by making up the difference with funds from donors and grants from the International Olympic Committee, but he cautioned that this likely would not be an option in 2013. He explained that far more funds were available in 2012 because of the summer Olympics.

According to Lawaetz, the committee’s main focus for the next fiscal year will be to aid Virgin Island athletes as they attempt to qualify for the Central American/Caribbean Games to be held in Vera Cruz, Mexico, in November 2014.

The senators applauded the qualifying of seven athletes in this summer’s Olympics. Sen. Samuel Sanes said that having our athletes compete in front of the world raises the image of the islands and could ultimately boost tourism.

None made any firm promises about the committee’s funding, however.

Attending the budget hearing were Sens. Sanes, Barshinger, Malone, Russell, Terrance “Positive” Nelson, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Carlton “Ital” Dowe.

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