Senators raised concerns about government resources being wasted and allowed to dissipate as government-owned buildings and supplies languish abandoned and government agencies spending huge amounts on rent, during budget hearings for the Division of Property and Procurement on Friday.
Among its responsibilities, Property and Procurement handles the renting of government property to private businesses and the government’s rental of private properties. It also oversees government property if it is not being used.
Sen. Myron Jackson showed recent photos of the Antonio Jarvis Elementary School on St. Thomas, which has been closed for a number of years. The photos showed chairs and desks piled floor to ceiling in several large rooms, along with other materials, appearing as if the school were locked up with all its contents.
"You can’t tell me we don’t need chairs, we don’t need desks. This is criminal," Jackson said.
Derek Gabriel, deputy commissioner of Property and Printing, said they were aware of the material in the school and had a recent walk-through with the Department of Education, but the building had not been turned over to Property and Procurement because it still had Education Department property in it.
"I am saying the building still has Education Department assets, so it is still under their jurisdiction," Gabriel said. Jackson asked if Property and Procurement had corresponded with Education recently about the situation. Gabriel said they had spoken, but it had been more than a year since the last written correspondence about that building.
Jackson said, “We have no problem paying millions of dollars in rent throughout this territory. When it comes to the investment of the government in its own properties, we fail miserably and it does not make sense.”
Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson agreed and inquired about a building maintenance policy, which he said would fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Works. But with more than 200 buildings, and less than 20 skilled maintenance personnel, the load would be unbalanced, he said.
“There must be some individuals able to accommodate the repair and even small- to medium-sized construction,” said Nelson.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone agreed about the need for the government to transition away from expensive rent, but also praised Property and Procurement and the Legislature for making progress toward that goal.
Malone said the government paid more than $14 million in rent every year when he first entered the Legislature, but was down to around $4 million today, per district.
Gabriel and Commissioner Lynn Millin Maduro agreed and said the department is working steadily to switch to government-owned buildings rather than renting government offices whenever possible.
Maduro testified in support of the department’s proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget of $3.5 million – 5 percent lower than the 2014 appropriation.
Almost 74 percent of the budget will be obligated to personnel service and fringe benefit costs for the 54 employees territory wide, Maduro said.
As of June 25, the department had collected $8.4 million in revenues from the funds managed by the department, including the Business and Commercial Account, Central Motor Pool Fund, Central Warehouse Revolving Fund, the Gasoline Coupon Program, Printing Production Fund and the General Fund.
In the afternoon, the Finance Committee heard from Office of Veterans Affairs Director Harry Daniel, who presented his department’s FY15 budget of $310,000, all of which is from the territory’s General Fund. This appropriation funds wages and salaries of $216,000 and employer Social Security, Medicare, insurance and pension contributions of $94,000 for the office’s four current employees.
Veterans Affairs will also receive $400,000 from the territory’s miscellaneous budget category, which goes to pay for veterans’ burials and health-related travel. In FY14, the office got a donation of $62,500 from V.I. Lottery and expects a similar amount in FY15, Daniel said.
Committee members present included Jackson, Nelson, Sens. Judi Buckley, Donald Cole and Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly. Noncommittee members Malone and Sen. Kenneth Gittens were also present.