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Veterans, Health Clinic Ask for More Money

July 19, 2005 – While the Office of Management and Budget claims that budget requests from various government agencies for fiscal year 2006 have been satisfied, representatives from the Office of Veterans Affairs and the East End Medical Clinic said Tuesday they are not being given enough to keep their organizations running. This is a result of being under-funded by the government in past years, they said.
Their comments came during a Senate budget hearing Tuesday, in which senators also discussed the finances of the Public Finance Authority and the Magens Bay Authority.
Justin Harrigan Sr., director of the Office of Veterans Affairs, said this is his fourth attempt to collect money from the government for a new car and additional personnel. Harrigan, who said he has been without a fiscal manager, has had to run most areas of the agency himself — including accounting and day-to-day operations.
"But you must have some kind of fiscal manager to take care of your money," Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said; he, like many other senators at Tuesday's hearings, could not believe that Harrigan was so understaffed and chastised Gov. Charles W. Turnbull for neglecting the office's needs. Because the Office of Veterans Affairs functions under the governor's office, senators said they believe Turnbull should play a more active role in fixing the situation.
"If the governor is your boss, then you should talk to him about the things that are going on … and make sure he helps you remedy these problems," Sen. Louis P. Hill said.
Harrigan said he was also in need of an office manager for the Veterans Affairs Office on St. Croix, as well as a part-time custodial worker.
"I am asking for $80,069.99 to fund these three positions," he said, adding that the executive budget allotment of $256,537 for 2006 would not be enough to include funding for the jobs. He called for a total of an extra $113,834 in his budget.
This amount would provide $20,000 for the purchase of a vehicle on St. Thomas. "Presently the office is assigned a 1997 Cherokee Jeep from the Department of Property and Procurement which is in deplorable condition and is in constant need of repairs, paid for by my office," Harrigan said. He has to make sure a set of jumper cables is in the car every day before traveling — just in case it breaks down.
Additionally, Harrigan asked senators for the increase to fund medical and office travel to help veterans get to Puerto Rico when medical assistance is needed, and to pay for office trips to St. Croix. "Most departments have this expense included in their budget, and this office should be no less."
Harrigan added that the travel budget, including veterans' trips to the VA Medical Center in Puerto Rico, should be raised to $9,000 from the current $5,000.
Most importantly, Harrigan requested extra money for death benefits to help family members of veterans pay the "high cost of burial services in the territory." Families are generally awarded $2,000 in aid, and more money is needed to continue these benefits, he said. The territory has averaged approximately 51 deaths a year among veterans; Harrigan asked for an increase of at least $10,000 per year in this area.
"This amount will help us achieve our goal of a six-week turnaround time in processing the application," Harrigan said, meaning that the entire process from burial to payment will take no more than six weeks.
While senators did not object to the increase, many did harbor concerns about land available for cemeteries and acknowledged that the St. Thomas cemetery is running out of room.
Harrigan said the construction of cemeteries on St. Thomas and St. Croix have been delayed due to problems with the Department of Public Works and the Department of Property and Procurement.
"I was supposed to meet with Commissioner [George] Phillips of Public Works to identify a site on St. Thomas. On the day the meeting was scheduled, … it was supposed to be at 11 in the morning, and he didn't call me until four in the afternoon. By that time, I had another engagement," Harrigan said, adding that Phillips has not contacted him since to reschedule — almost a year has passed.
Testimony given by the St. Thomas East End Medical Center Corp. echoed Harrigan's frustration, as representatives said the Office of Management and Budget has cut the medical center's initial request nearly in half for the last two years.
"The FY 2005-2006 budget appropriation of $450,000 represents the same level of funding as the 2004-2005 appropriation. However, an initial request of $854,264 was presented to the Office of Management and Budget as the funding level needed for the operation of the corporation. This reduction of $404,264 in the funding allocation will hinder the plans to improve the services of the health center," said Lloyd L. Williams, the chairman of the medical center board.
Williams added that the decrease in funding also puts the clinic close to bankruptcy, as money is needed to pay a year's worth of overdue rent on the facility in Tutu Park Mall, as well as outstanding debts owed to the Department of Health for reimbursing employee salaries.
Williams explained that while the clinic does receive funding from federal grants, most of the money is used to fund HIV/AIDS patient services and "indigent" clients who may not have the means to pay for treatments. "We are required by law to give service to anyone who asks," Williams said. "Sometimes we have clients that can't pay, … and we provide for over 5,000 individuals."
The clinic's chief financial officer, Anneta Adams Heyliger, added the clinic is also looking to move its facility to another Tutu location. "Right now, we're in an old office in the mall, and we're looking to enter into a lease-purchase agreement for another building within the Tutu area that would give us more space and the ability to fully function as a clinic," Heyliger said. Rent at the new location also would be significantly cheaper — $3,500 a month compared to the $21,000 a month at the mall.
To cover these expenses and other supply costs, the clinic requested a $1,004,303 allotment.
"We have put some financial controls in place," Williams said when questioned by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste as to whether any cost-cutting measures have been implemented. "But we have no assets and a lot of liability, and we really need the money to continue to function as a clinic."
The Public Finance Authority did not request any additional allotments at Tuesday's hearing, but PFA Executive Director Kenneth Mapp acknowledged that the territory's overall debt was $1.2 billion dollars.
Mapp said that debt service payments of $86.2 million have been made from revenue generated from the rum tax and real property taxes.
Mapp explained that according to the Revised Organic Act adopted by the VI, the government is not allowed to carry debt greater than 10 percent of the amount of collectable property tax. Because the amount of taxable property in the VI is $8.3 billion, Mapp added that this year's PFA intake would be approximately $8.3 million.
Mapp further acknowledged that a current property re-valuation project would not only lead to increased property taxes, but increased real property revenue for the government and the authority.
Mapp explained that only 10 percent of money generated from real property taxes goes to the PFA. "The current value of all taxable property in the VI is $8,271,670,000," Mapp said, adding that this year's intake would be approximately $8.3 million.
Mapp further acknowledged that a current property re-valuation project would not only lead to increased property taxes, but increased real property revenue for the government and the authority.
The PFA once again requested $3.4 million for its operations and to cover the cost o
f professional service contracts, auditing and accounting services, financial advisors, trustees and bank custody fees, and investment advisors and project management expenses.
Other testimony came from the Magen's Bay Authority, a self-sufficient government agency since 1999. While not requesting any money from the government, the authority was represented by Chair Aubrey Nelthropp and General Manager William C. Jowers, both of whom gave an update on the organization and the revenues collected this year.
The Magens Bay Authority will carry over more than $1.5 million from 2005, Nelthropp said. Senators, impressed with the quality of the organization and its ability to function without government monies, encouraged them to keep up the good work.
Present at Tuesdays hearings were Sens. Jn Baptiste, Nelson, Hill, Neville James, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Usie Richards, Roosevelt David, Celestino A. White, Sr. and Juan Figueroa-Serville.

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