Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s plans for almost $2 million in renovations to executive offices on all three islands raised a small amount of concern for some senators during budget hearings Tuesday. Rochelle Benjamin, Mapp’s director of business and administration for the Office of the Governor, presented the office’s proposed total Fiscal Year 2017 budget of $12.1 million, an increase of about $2.9 million over last year’s total budget of $9.2 million.
“The financial budget request covers mandatory costs and planned initiatives for the central operations of the Office of the Governor and the Bureau of Economic Research,” Benjamin said.
The budget breaks down to $9.4 million from the General Fund for the Office of the Governor; $538,000 from the General Fund for the Bureau of Economic Research, which is budgeted through the Office of the Governor.
The office has budgeted itself another $150,000 from the Tourism Revolving Fund and $250,000 in federal funds, according to Benjamin.
Benjamin’s written testimony itemized $1.92 million in "other services and charges" with $1.53 million from the General Fund. The Legislature’s post audit of the budget, with budget information provided previously from the Office of the Governor, showed $3.53 million in "other services and charges," or $2 million more than last year and $2 million more than discussed in Benjamin’s testimony.
Sen. Kurt Vialet asked, "Did you already outline what that $2 million is for?" "That $2 million amount was actually for the renovation and repair of all the Government Houses on each island,” Benjamin said.
"That may have to stay the same for now. I don’t know if we can afford that right now. All over government need the repairs," Vialet said.
Benjamin said, "It’s really bad.”
"It’s really bad all over,”Vialet said.
Later Sen. Sammuel Sanes also cast doubt on whether he could support $2 million in capital projects for government house.
"There is a need in our schools, to make them livable,” Sanes said.
The senator said, “I have gone to some schools in which, unfortunately, the basic essentials are lacking. At one school on St. Croix, the teacher’s desk was being held up by a brick."
He said, "We will take it into consideration but don’t be surprised."
Vialet asked about capital outlays increasing by $200,000 to $550,000. Those increases include some office furnishings and repairs to allow BER and Government House’s public relations to move into Government House.
That capital outlay sum also includes $80,000 for "a motor vehicle that will provide for the safety and protection of the governor," Benjamin said during her testimony.
Sen. Clifford Graham asked if the office was in danger of losing any federal funds.
Benjamin said the Office of the Governor was not facing any loss and BER Director Bernadette Melendez said that office was not either.
Sen. Marvin Blyden cited a BER study saying 38 percent of business employers are having difficulties filling job positions and asked if "the job vacancies (are) a result of the lack of skills.”
Melendez said, "Yes. Employers are unable to fill positions because of the lack of education, experience and skills."
Vialet questioned how that could be, saying there "are students graduating from the University of the Virgin Islands every year yet the data reflects that there is a lack of skills and education.”
“Is this a ploy to hire managers from outside the territory?” Vialet asked.
Melendez said the survey was not done with the end goal of hiring people from the mainland. “Empirical data was compiled to understand the factors influencing the demand for labor and types of skills needed to increase employment,” she said. “Overall, the study indicated that 38 percent of business employers has difficulties filling positions.”
Sen. Clifford Graham asked what the next step would be to address the issue, now that surveys are completed and data is in.
Melendez said the Bureau of Economic Research is working closely with officials from the Department of Labor to train the workforce for managerial positions.
No votes were taken during the budget oversight hearing.
Present were Graham, Vialet, Sanes, Blyden, Sens. Tregenza Roach, Positive Nelson and Myron Jackson. No members were absent.