May 17, 2005 Planning and Natural Resources Department and V.I. Housing Finance Authority officials met with members of the St. Thomas community Tuesday evening to discuss a consolidated five-year plan addressing housing, homelessness and community development.
About 30 people from various organizations and schools participated in the meeting at the Lockhart Elementary School on St. Thomas. A similar meeting took place Monday on St. John, and a third meeting will be held Wednesday on St. Croix.
"This consolidated plan helps us more or less to bring our resources together and address how we're going to handle situations of housing, the homeless and community development," said Keith Richards, capital projects director and special assistant to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
Consolidated planning is a new requirement placed on the territory by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to continue receiving three federal funds the Community Development Block Grant, the Emergency Shelter Grant and the Home Funds. The consolidated plan requirement has been in effect throughout the mainland since 1989, but it had always been given to the Virgin Islands as an option, Richards said. However, the federal government mandated that the territory adopt the consolidated plan this year to qualify for receiving the funds in the future.
The territory has received approximately $3.98 million each year from the three grants combined — $1.9 million in Community Development Block Grants, $1.2 million in Emergency Shelter Grants and $88,000 in Home Funds.
In the past, various agencies would submit requests for grants, and then the grant manager, DPNR, would recommend which organizations would receive grants. The Legislature would then approve or make changes before turning it over to the governor for his approval.
With the consolidated plan, residents help decide what community projects should receive funding by assessing the needs of their communities and by setting priorities of what they feel are the most important issues to address. Issues range from senior centers to homeless facilities to solid waste disposal improvements.
"It is about you prioritizing the needs, not only of the organizations you represent, but of the communities that you live in," said Felix Berruz, VIHFA financial assistant.
As part of the plan, the government is required to involve the community in developing a 5-year strategy from 2006 to 2010 for the use of the federal funds received this fiscal year.
In February, community organizations and individuals were asked to submit proposals for the use of the funds. About 30 proposals from St. Thomas were submitted. At Tuesday's meeting, members of the community questioned people who had submitted proposals on the nature of their projects and what the money would go toward.
Several people raised questions concerning a $500,800 request from the Licensing and Consumer Affairs Department for repairs and upgrades of Vendor's Plaza.
Diane Magras Ureña, president of the Virgin Islands Vendors Association, said the money was needed to make aesthetic repairs to the Vendor's Plaza and to fix the sidewalk to prevent injuries to the tourists.
"It's not for the vendor's alone," Ureña said. "It's also for the tourists."
Basil Ottley, chief of staff for Sen. Louis P. Hill, asked why so many schools and government agencies were making requests for grant money when they already received other types of federal funding. Ottley said more of the money should be given to non-profit organizations.
"Schools and government agencies are eligible, and they cannot be denied," said Laurence Joshua, director of the Community Development Block Grant program.
Approximately 65 percent of the three grants goes toward government agencies, Joshua said. Only about $300,000 goes toward non-government entities.
"There seems to need to be a better way," Ottley said.
Joshua said DPNR would like to give more preference to the non-government entities, but the federal government has set limits on how the grants are disbursed. Seventy percent of the grants must benefit low-income people, and only 15 percent, or $291,000, can be used for services where the money usually goes towards salaries for those providing the service.
The people attending the meeting were all given forms to assess the needs of their communities and their organizations, which must be returned to DPNR by Monday. DPNR will then review the information and prepare the 5-year plan for submittal to HUD. The deadline for submitting the Consolidated Plan is August 15.
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