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Charlotte Amalie
Friday, June 24, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesSenators Fiercely Question Corrections Budget

Senators Fiercely Question Corrections Budget

Administrators of the Bureau of Corrections found themselves on the defensive as they presented their Fiscal Year 2014 budget request at a contentious meeting of the Senate Committee on Finance.

In his opening remarks Thursday, acting Director Basil Richards painted the Bureau of Correction as a group of dedicated employees struggling with chronic underfunding. He described the bureau’s physical plant as “aged and currently crumbling” and mentioned several times that their corrections staff are the lowest paid law enforcement officers in the territory.

Richards singled out the rising cost of health care as a major financial hurdle for the bureau that was inflating the cost of incarcerating criminals.

He estimated the total cost of caring for each inmate was $125 a day and later Assistant Director Dwayne Benjamin said that number was liable to rise.

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Richards said it only cost the bureau around $85 a day to house inmates in off-island facilities and suggested to the Senate that it could make fiscal sense to send more prisoners off island rather than build a new prison.

Senators were openly hostile towards the bureau officials during their questioning, with several senators voicing anger that Director Julius Wilson was absent from the hearing and sent Richards as his proxy.

Sen. Diane Capehart said this was the second time Wilson had avoided being questioned by the Legislature, having been absent at a walkthrough of the Golden Grove penitentiary attended by several senators.

“It’s just so disappointing that the person who should be here at the helm really doesn’t care. To me he doesn’t care,” she said.

Later Capehart quipped that she knew of $92,000 they could trim from the budget, referring to Wilson’s salary.

Sen. Terrence Nelson echoed this comment later after Joyce Herelle, the bureau’s personnel and labor relations administrator, seemed flustered throughout the hearing and had trouble answering a question.

“And how much do you make,” he asked Herelle.

The bureau is requesting a FY14 General Fund allotment of $26,434,093 – only slightly more than their 2013 budget.

Sen. Clifford Graham took exception to the breakdown of the budget, pointing out that for utility costs the bureau had requested less than half the amount of money they actually spent in Fiscal Year 2013.

Valencia Henry, the administrative assistant supervisor, said she believed the lower request was due to energy saving initiatives enacted by the bureau, but Graham expressed doubt that such a large savings was feasible.

Graham said he was certain the bureau would have to submit a supplementary budget request before the end of FY14.

Nelson said he believed the bureau asked for so little to cover utilities because they did not intend to pay their electric and water bills.

He went on to accuse the bureau of transferring inmates who “had dirt” on prison administrators to off-island penitentiaries to keep them quiet, though he offered no proof and did not cite any particular inmate transfers.

Richards said the prisoners who were transferred were chosen because they were violent and posed a risk to the prisoner population or were serving particularly long sentences.

The senators also spent time discussing the morale of correction officers. Last week, the Golden Grove penitentiary was put on lockdown because guards staged an organized “sick out.”

Richards said that issue had been resolved and that he had met with the union. He promised to meet with employees more frequently to hear their grievances. However, he admitted that morale remained “extremely low” and that the root cause was the officers’ low wages.

Sen. Nereida Rivera O’Reilly pointed out that the union had negotiated an agreement for higher salaries in 2010 but those salaries had never materialized. She asked why the bureau had decided not to seek the pay increases in their budget.

Henry replied that they had requested funding for the pay increases in a supplemental budget request in FY13.

The senators also heard budget proposals from the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and from the V.I. Housing Finance Authority at the hearing, though these presentations proved less contentious.

Several senators left the chamber during DLCA’s presentation and Sen. Graham jokingly told Commissioner Wayne Biggs that, if your budget hearing isn’t packed with senators, it means you are doing a good job.

Licensing and Consumer Affairs requested a FY14 allotment of $3,383,001 – a decrease of $113,626 from the previous year. Biggs said the budget was lean, but sufficient provided they don’t see any more mid-year budget cuts.

The VIHFA requested $2 million from the General Fund, commensurate with their FY13 allotment.

Executive Director Adrienne Williams said they would supplement their allotment with $1,159,639 from “miscellaneous sources,” and $1,520,007 from land and home sales, leases and mortgages.

Graham questioned whether it was wise to rely so heavily on land and home sales for their budget given the weak housing market in the territory, especially on St. Croix.

Williams acknowledged that the economy would be a challenge, citing an unwillingness of banks to lend money and low consumer confidence as factors that could prevent people from entering the home market.

She also said that with lower house prices on St. Croix, the authority’s properties were now competing directly with privately owned used homes that are up for sale.

Williams remained confident that they could hit their goal, however.

“We’re hoping that the economy will slowly start to rebound and consumer confidence will increase, but we’re keeping our expenditures pretty tight to try to offset any unrealized projections,” she said.

No votes were taken at the information gathering hearing.

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