Members of the Senate Finance Committee on Monday had questions about the proposed budget for the Office of the Governor, which is seeking a General Fund appropriation for the upcoming fiscal year of $12.8 million, an increase of 37.9 percent.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory told Karl Knight, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s chief of staff, she was “puzzled” by some of them and indicated she thought some figures were duplicated.
Most of the questions concerned new programs being initiated by the office – their costs and who would manage them.
One such new initiative is the proposed establishment of a territorial parks system. There was a request of $250,000 for this.
However, senators noted that the Department of Planning and Natural Resources will do most of the work to get the system established and would oversee it after it is up and running. Knight, after discussion with the senators, indicated the proper place for the $250,000 request was in the Natural Resources budget.
The plan, according to Knight, is to create a system like those already in existence in every state of the United States.
“We intend to rebrand and promote existing publicly owned natural, cultural, and historical Virgin Islands assets which will be adopted into the Territorial Park System,” Knight said. “Some examples of these assets include the East End Marine Park on St. Croix, the historic forts in Charlotte Amalie and Frederiksted, the Prince Frederik Battery on Hassel Island, the Whim Museum, and Salt River Bay on St. Croix.”
Another initiative presented by Knight, which Sen. Javan James said he could not wait to see come to fruition, was the establishment of a commission on political status. Knight said the commission would initiate a public education campaign on the U.S. Virgin Islands’ status within the United States of America. The governor’s office is requesting $75,000 to establish the commission.
The commission could begin a community dialogue and an education campaign that takes the time to educate Virgin Islanders on the status options available to them. Knight said it could begin with a simple binary choice: (1) do we wish to pursue greater integration with the United States, or (2) do we wish to pursue greater autonomy and independence? The goal would be a vote on political status during the General Election of 2026.
The budget request also includes $539,187 to fund the operations of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention. Knight said this includes the hiring of people to fill seven new positions to conduct the core functions of the office. The Gun Violence office, mandated by the Senate, is charged with formulating strategies to reduce and prevent gun violence.
Another new part of the governor’s budget is a request for $250,000 to continue the development of the territory’s Health Information Exchange. The Health Information Exchange is the transmission of health-related data among medical facilities, providers, and patients electronically.
Sen. Marvin Blyden questioned whether there could be federal grant money to lessen the request of $216,500 to purchase three electric vehicles and associated infrastructure. Knight replied that electric vehicles are past the experimental stage and are commercial.
“We came late to the party,” he said.
Sen. Kurt Vialet, chairman of the committee, questioned the propriety of contracts with radio talk show hosts. He mentioned a contract with Holland Redfield for $60,000. Vialet said a “communication contract for a specific talk show host leaves much to be desired.”
Personnel costs for the upcoming fiscal year are estimated to be $6 million, or 47.5 percent of the proposed budget. Those personnel costs are for 106 positions distributed as follows – Government House on St. Thomas, 37 employees; Government House on St. Croix, 37 employees; the Battery on St. John, five employees; Office of the Governor in total has 14 funded vacant/new positions territorywide; Bureau of Economic Research has four employees and two funded vacant/new positions; and the Office of Gun Violence has seven new funded positions.
All committee members were in attendance – Sens. Marvin Blyden, Dwayne DeGraff, Donna Frett-Gregory, Javan James, Janelle Sarauw, Samuel “Sam” Carrión, and Kurt Vialet.