VITEMA Asks for Increased Disaster Contingency Fund

VITEMA Director Mona Barnes at hearing in February. (Photo by Barry Leerdam courtesy of the V.I. Legislature)

The V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency told the Senate Finance Committee Thursday that the territory’s annual appropriation toward the Disaster Contingency Fund isn’t enough to handle immediate expenses after a major storm.

“No one could have predicted two category five storms in two weeks,” said VITEMA Director Mona Barnes, who presented the agency’s budget. “Irma and Maria confirmed that the current annual appropriation of $750,000 is not sufficient.”

The Disaster Contingency Fund, which receives a flat appropriation of $750,000 per year, provides the local match for federal disaster grants and covers local response efforts for major incidents that don’t meet the threshold for a presidential disaster declaration.

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At its current level it is far from the level the fund should maintain, according to Barnes. Based on immediate post-hurricane expenses related to work done by the Department of Public Works, the Department of Education, the V.I. Police Department and VITEMA, Barnes said the disaster fund should maintain at least $6 million dollars. Barnes also recommended the Legislature continue to make annual appropriations toward the fund even after that minimum recommended amount is reached.

VITEMA has also requested some $606,000 from the Emergency Services Fund for equipment repairs and to transition to a more effective and cost-effective digital system that allows residents to communicate with 911 centers through texts or multi-media messages.

The ESF is funded by a $2 surcharge on communication lines that went into effect in 2008. Currently, VITEMA gets 40 percent — about $300,000 — while the remaining $450,000 is split by the V.I. Fire Service and Emergency Medical Services. With communication services down after the hurricanes, the funds collected from surcharges dropped and the dollar amount that VITEMA received was $223,000, some $77,000 less than expected.

“Should this downward trend continue, VITEMA will not be afforded the opportunity to transition to the New Generation 911 as planned nor meet other obligations for the emergency call centers,” said Barnes.

This year, VITEMA is asking for $18.2 million. Of that amount, $4.4 million will come from the General Fund. The amount also includes the $750,000 in disaster contingency funds as well as $12.4 million in federal funds. The agency’s actual operating cost is $11.43 million, which funds 134 positions in the agency.

Barnes also reported that the agency is managing $1.02 billion in federal share funding from the Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation grant programs for disaster response after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Of that amount, the agency has expended roughly $430 million, with the total projected estimates exceeding $2 billion for the two hurricanes.

Fire Service Director Clifford Joseph also presented his agency’s budget Thursday of $18.8 million for FY 2018, a decline of $1.5 million compared with last year’s budget. Some 98 percent will be spent on personnel and fringe benefits, while the rest will go to utilities and supplies. That leaves the Fire Service with no budget for training and capital, some of which they draw from federal grants or the Emergency Services Fund.

According to Joseph, the agency’s focus over the last nine months has been disaster operations and facility repairs. All of the agency’s fire stations have sustained hurricane damage and have been temporarily remedied, he said, with modular units installed at the Fortuna Fire Station on St. Thomas and the Cruz Bay Fire Station on St. John.

One of the major issues the agency is facing is the unreliability of radio communications. Joseph said prior to the storms, fire personnel already had difficulties sending or receiving radio communication from certain areas in the territory, a problem that only got worse after the 2017 hurricanes.

Manpower shortage also poses difficulties. While recruitment does not present much of a challenge, the Fire Service does have a problem keeping their employees, a problem exacerbated by the recent hurricanes. Since the storms six employees have resigned on St. Thomas, while two resigned on St. Croix. Seven employees also retired on St. Thomas, while four retired on St. Croix. In addition, federal funding for 19 firefighter positions is set to expire in January 2019.

“The agency’s initial funding request for the FY 2019 budget included the cost of the salaries,” Joseph explained. “However, due to reductions to the allotments, the positions are no longer covered. As a result, the agency will need additional funds to cover these salaries.”

Because of the hurricanes, the agency also incurred significant overtime costs, Joseph said. Stations were manned with two shifts each day for an extended period of time. Lawmakers insisted that the Fire Service stay on top of the submission of $2.2 million in overtime for federal reimbursement, which is seven months overdue.

“That $2.2 million came from someplace, and if it’s going to be reimbursed, it’s going to someplace that naturally could utilize those monies,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Kurt Vialet.

“We have a window of opportunity to collect or apply for substantial funds, and if we don’t work together, all of these requests are going to be denied,” said Vialet.

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