The Legislature is looking at a slew of bills this week as it winds down its last weeks, including increasing a phone bill emergency services surcharge; V.I. customs duties; the Government Employee Retirement System; and a V.I. Water and Power Authority streetlight surcharge.
The monthly Emergency Services Surcharge on landline and cell phone bills will double to $2 per phone number, with the extra money going to help emergency services, if one bill approved Tuesday becomes law.
"This bill recognizes the importance of funding critically needed emergency services across the territory," Sen. Novelle Francis said, introducing the bill, which he sponsored.
Francis said it would provide funding for ambulance maintenance, supplies for the V.I. Fire Service and help get new 911 infrastructure for the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency.
Officials from the Health Department, Fire Service and VITEMA all supported the measure.
Agency officials testified that VITEMA got about $391,000 from the surcharge last year; Health got about $306,000; and the Fire Service about $300,000. VITEMA also got an additional $121,000 for 911 service. The funding would double if the bill is passed.
Health Commissioner Michelle Davies said it was important to secure steady funding for emergency services, with a new Congress and president coming into office that may be inclined to cut federal funding.
She said the Health Department urgently needed funding for ambulance repairs and maintenance, as well as supplies, fuel and training. The new funding "could have a substantial impact on the improvement of our services," Davies said.
Allison DeGazon, VITEMA’s assistant director, said the agency needed funding for maintenance of its equipment and staff training. She and other VITEMA staff said the agency needed to upgrade its 911 system to the current standard, which would allow people to text 911 and allow mapping services to help locate callers, among other improvements.
"Without the ability to make the necessary improvements to the infrastructure of our Emergency Call Center communication systems and software, our first responders and citizens will be limited to the level of real time services available to them at a most vulnerable time in their lives," DeGazon said.
Voting to send the bill on to Rules for more consideration were Sens. Marvin Blyden, Clifford Graham, Myron Jackson and Vialet. Sens. Positive Nelson and Tregenza Roach voted no. Sen. Sammuel Sanes was absent.
A portion of rental income from 121 former Hovensa houses will go toward the roughly $3.1 billion GERS unfunded liability, if a bill sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Gittens is enacted into law.
Gittens said the measure its to "help us with the unfunded liability" and, while it is not enough to fix it, "every little bit helps and we need to start addressing this."
The government owns 121 houses, acquired through the 2014 purchase of the former Hovensa refinery by Limetree Bay. Budget Director Nellon Bowry said the government is renting 80 of the houses back to Limetree Bay for about $1.15 million per year. He did not oppose the bill, but said he "strongly suggests" the Legislature reserve some of the money "because the properties need to be maintained."
Bowry could not say exactly how much was needed to maintain the properties, but said Property and Procurement Commissioner Randolph Bennett had told him "his position is that we need all of it to properly maintain the property and more."
Bennett was not at Tuesday’s hearing.
GERS Administrator Austin Nibbs said the money was welcome but would not go far towards fixing the system’s unfunded liability, which he said stood at around $3.1 billion.
"This will not fix the problem," Nibbs said.
Graham agreed, saying it was "like bailing out a dinghy with a teaspoon."
Vialet suggested reserving 40 percent of the funds for maintenance and devoting 60 percent to GERS. The bill was not amended Tuesday. Senators voted 7-0 to send it out of committee.