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HomeNewsArchivesJustice Budget Increase Will Cover the Basics But No More, Senators Say

Justice Budget Increase Will Cover the Basics But No More, Senators Say

June 28, 2007 — A $2.5 million budget increase may help the Department of Justice with basic needs, but it won't help with such long-standing issues as the inability to hire and recruit qualified employees, senators said Thursday.
The money will only help the department fund operational costs and other expenses, senators said during the first round of budget hearings Thursday. Zeroing in on statements by Attorney General Vincent Frazer, senators based most of their concerns on the number of vacancies within the department. Though Justice currently has about 516 active employees, it also has more than 200 vacancies, Frazer said.
He linked the number of empty positions with an almost $20 million cost savings for the department once the current fiscal year wraps up in September. After the meeting, he explained that Justice has presently spent only $14.1 million of the $33.3 million General Fund budget recommended for FY 2007, with much of the unspent money coming from recurring vacancies throughout the department.
During the meeting, Frazer told senators that low salaries and a limited pool of qualified applicants have kept Justice from replenishing its personnel force, hindering operations in all areas. More specifically, he said a shortage of corrections officers and attorneys have slowed both improvements in the prison system and the prosecution of various cases.
"Attracting applicants is not really the problem, since we have a lot of attorneys, for example, that would like to come in," he said. "When they hear the salaries we offer, though, they're not so excited."
Efforts to hire more corrections officers have also hit a brick wall, since many applicants have not been able to pass the required examinations or make it through the training process, Frazer added. While collaboration with the V.I. Police Department may soon bolster Justice's recruiting efforts, the department also has to work on reaching out to the younger community, gearing up students in local junior high and high schools for a career in law enforcement, he said.
"Even if the Senate gives us all the money, we would still have difficulty recruiting, since another problem is finding people out there that can go through the whole process," Frazer said. "And I believe this is sort of symptomatic of what's going on in our community. It's up to us to go back amongst the young people in high school, or even junior high school, and get them to conduct themselves better and develop their character so that once they complete high school, they can take advantage of the opportunities that are there."
The Bureau of Corrections now has about 100 vacancies, Frazer added. Out of the 80 positions included in the department's FY 2007 budget, Justice has only recently been able to take on another 12 officers, he explained.
Senators suggested that the department start eliminating vacancies recurring in the budget over the past few years and use the leftover money to increase employees' salaries. While Frazer agreed that the department's salaries have to be adjusted, he also explained that wages are tied to the existing personnel system and the government's collective-bargaining process.
Court mandates require the department to maintain and fill a certain number of positions during any given fiscal year, he added.
Discussion on the shortage of corrections officers raised additional concerns for senators, who said the Bureau of Corrections should be severed from the department and turned into a separate government agency.
"The bulk of your problems come from Corrections," said Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe. "Aren't you ready to throw your hands up and say, 'Let somebody else take this away from me?'"
"Some days, yes," Frazer responded.
He added, however, that the department's FY 2008 budget earmarks approximately $22 million for "corrections activities," including the establishment of a forensics facility to house mentally ill inmates.
"We would urge you, senators, not to reduce any of the proposed funding," Frazer said. "All of it is critical for us to achieve the mission of the Corrections Bureau."
Senators were also urged not to decrease Justice's overall budget, set at $42.7 million for FY 2008 — a $2.5 million increase over the $40.2 appropriated in FY 2007. Of that amount, $35.5 million will come from the General Fund, and will mostly go toward personnel services, listed in budget documents as a $22 million expense.
Any jump in Justice's budget would primarily go toward employees' salary increases, Frazer said.
Also included in Justice's overall budget is a proposed $183,092 for the Civil Rights Commission, an entity tasked with investigating discriminatory complaints, hate crimes and sexual-harassment claims. Commission representatives said Thursday the recommended amount would not be enough to fund operations over the next fiscal year.
To make up for the shortfall, the commission requested that senators supplement the budget with at least an additional $62,000, allowing members to meet more than three times per year to discuss pending cases.
But Finance Committee chairman Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said the commission should first work on establishing a quorum before any extra funding is granted through the budget-markup process.
Present during Thursday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Dowe, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Neville James and Nelson.
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