Bottlenecks in trying Superior Court cases on St. Croix may call for an additional judge, Attorney General Vincent Frazer told the Legislature’s Finance Committee on Wednesday as he defended his Fiscal Year 2013 budget. The meeting was held at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Croix.
“The system appears to be clogged up,” Frazer said. “Some cases are two years old.”
He said that when cases get that old, it’s difficult to locate witnesses and opens the possibility of witness intimidation. Frazer added that the system is getting “clogged up” with less serious crimes.
Frazer, who heads the local Justice Department, presented a budget of $19.6 million. That figure includes $14.3 million from the General Fund and $5.3 million in federal funds. He said the department may have to seek supplemental assistance later in the fiscal year.
“But we believe we can meet our mission with this budget although there will be challenges,” Frazer said.
Last year the budget stood at $19.4 million.
According to Frazer, the department is hampered in planning its budget because it doesn’t know how many crimes will be committed and how many lawsuits will be filed against the government. One of his department’s jobs is to defend the government when it is sued.
He said that 82 percent of the budget goes to personnel costs.
Armed with figures, Frazer said so far this year, the office on St. Croix filed 219 felony cases and 190 misdemeanor cases. On St. Thomas, the numbers stand at 232 felony cases and 291 misdemeanors.
He said that although felony cases are down on St. Thomas, criminals are now firing on police officers and tourists. Frazer said that those were two groups that had previously been isolated from “random criminal acts.”
In discussing the Justice Department’s activities, Frazer said that a consent decree between the local government and the federal Environmental Protection Agency will call for the local Planning and Natural Resources Department to take over the cleanup of the contaminated Tutu wells on St. Thomas in 2013. The aquifer was contaminated by pollutants from business in the area.
Frazer said that if DPNR does not assume the job, the government would face $20 million in damages imposed by the EPA, but added, “We are satisfied the consent decree is best.”
He said the local government will ask EPA for grant funding to pay for operating expenses. Additionally it will ensure that the equipment now used by EPA is cleaning up the contaminated wells is in “tip-top” condition when it is turned over.
“The project will be with us for years to come,” Frazer said.
Under questioning by Sen. Celestino White, Frazer said his department is prepared for what White termed a long and hard fight against Hovensa. Gov. John deJongh Jr. announced Monday that he will work toward reopening the refinery, possibly with new ownership. Hovensa wants to operate the closed refinery as an oil storage facility. White also asked about the aborted deal with GlobeVest VI for a sports complex on St. Croix.
Frazer said that while the “process worked the way it should have,” his office should have delved deeper into those who were going to build the complex.
Frazer said that prosecutors who deal with homicide cases are being paid with what are commonly called Stimulus Funds. He said he was optimistic that when that funding runs out in October 2013, the local government will be on better fiscal footing and able to pay their salaries.
The medical examiner comes under the Justice Department umbrella, and Frazer said there are issues to be resolved. He said the bodies sometimes stack up because funeral homes don’t pick them up. However, he said his department planned to impose fees when the funeral homes exceed a grace period.
Frazer said the morgues, located at hospitals on St. Thomas and St. Croix, are small and that should a mass casualty occur, refrigerated trailers would be brought in to supply additional morgue space.
In addition efforts are ongoing to bring the Paternal and Child Support Division’s payment system up to date, according to its director, Terrilyn Smock. Frazer said the division has 8,821 cases on its books.
After recessing the Finance Committee meeting for about 20 minutes, Sen. Carlton “Ital” Dowe returned to announce that he would not seek reelection. He first spoke about his contributions and thanked his staff and many others for their help over the years.
In addition to Dowe and White, Sens. Janette Millin-Young, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Sammuel Sanes attended the Justice Department portion of meeting. Sens. Louis P. Hill and Shawn-Michael Malone were absent.