June 29, 2006 – Recent budget cuts at the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation (HPR) have made the department's staff "the lowest paid in the entire government," Commissioner Ira Hobson said during the second round of budget hearings Thursday.
Hobson added that this has resulted in low morale and a "lack of initiative."
According to Hobson, cuts over the last few years have reduced the department's annual funding from $8 million to less than $6 million. The department's fiscal year 2007 budget recommendation of $5.7 million reflects a $414,202 increase from FY 2006.
"Much more would be accomplished if more resources were available," he added.
In response to questions from senators – who said they were concerned that the department has not reconciled its checking accounts for the past year – Hobson further said "understaffing" has forced many of the department's employees to assume multiple duties, including managing business records and financials.
He also said that the department has been unable to hire new personnel because "the salaries are too low."
While sympathetic to the commissioner's plight, senators said they were also concerned that: HPR grantees have not generated financial statements, that the department owes approximately $200,000 to the V.I. Water and Power Authority, and that many recreational facilities around the territory are in disrepair.
"That's why I'm requesting more funding," Hobson said.
Adding to Hobson's statements, Alcenta De Windt, the department's business director, said Housing, Parks and Recreation previously made attempts to request money for various items – such as additional positions and utility payments – in its budgets. "While we requested $2.5 million for utilities this year, however, we were only given $1.5 million," she said. "And because of the cut, we are anticipating a shortfall of about $500,000 for 2006."
Legislative resolutions have also cut the funding for the department's Homestead Loan Program, which grants up to $125,000 to residents seeking to build or purchase homes. Hobson explained that funding for the program came from revenues generated by the stamp tax. "From those revenues, we used to get about $1.4 million annually for the program," Hobson said. "But since the Legislature passed a resolution to cut that, we can only generate about $200,000 a year for these loans."
In response to a question from Sen. Liston Davis, Hobson said that he thought senators cut the funding because "the Legislature was just trying to make me feel silly."
On a more serious note, Hobson said that senators should fund the program for the next year, then find another revenue source. "It's important," he said. "Currently we have about 16 to 18 loan applications pending."
Hobson said the department would also need more money to conduct races at the Clinton Phipps Racetrack on St. Thomas. He explained that the St. Thomas-St. John Horseracing Committee, responsible for "policing" the races, does not have a budget and will not work until additional funding is provided. Furthermore, Hobson said, money is needed to fix a collapsed sewage pipe on the track, to revamp the racing facility and to refurbish the stables.
Hobson said $2.5 million would accomplish those goals. "We had been working on securing the funding through the Public Finance Authority," he said. "But all we've gotten so far are promises that the money was going to be allocated and ready for us when we needed it."
In response to a question from Sen. Usie R. Richards, Hobson said that he had sent several letters about the track to former PFA Executive Director Kenneth Mapp. "Unfortunately, Mr. Mapp had to leave the organization before he get the money for us," he said.
Other Housing, Parks and Recreation representatives said more funds are needed to conduct and improve many of the department's youth programs, to hire more lifeguards to patrol the territory's beaches and community pools, and to build additional facilities for athletes on St. Croix.
"If we get the necessary resources to take care of these things, we can make a bigger impact on the development of our athletes," Arol Abel, the department's deputy commissioner on St. Croix, said. Abel added that there is only one training center in Frederiksted and that the department wants to add one in Christiansted and on St. Thomas.
Despite the monetary challenges, however, Hobson said the department has "made great strides" over the past few years, and is currently working on constructing sports complexes on St. Thomas and St. Croix. "However, in both districts, we have to acquire the land from the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture," he said.
Hobson said the department is also working on various affordable housing initiatives, revamping existing recreational facilities, installing restrooms at various public beaches and building a track and field for Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on St. Thomas.
"I have done my best as commissioner to take care of these things and to provide a better quality of life for the people of the Virgin Islands," Hobson said at the end of the meeting. "I've also done the job with my whole heart and all of my integrity – given my whole person – to accomplishing what I've accomplished. And I think I did it well."
Present during Thursday's meeting were Sens. Craig W. Barshinger, Roosevelt C. David, Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Richards and Ronald E. Russell.
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