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VITEMA Seeks Budget to Fill 'Mission-Critical Positions'

The Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency is seeking almost $2 million more in the 2015 budget than in the current fiscal year to meet the need to fill "mission-critical positions," Director Elton Lewis told the Senate Budget Committee Friday.

The proposed VITEMA budget request includes $4.6 million – the amount recommended by Gov. John deJongh Jr. – from the General Fund, plus $1.3 million from the Executive branch’s miscellaneous fund, $724,572 from the Emergency Services Fund and anticipates another $1.5 million is federal grants, making the agency’s total 2015 budget almost $7 million.

In 2014, VITEMA was appropriated $4,406,137 from the General Fund and $600,000 non-appropriated local funds and the federal grant, resulting in a budget a little over $5 million.

Lewis said that 63 of VITEMA’s 78 positions are funded by the V.I. Government and the others by the federal government. The “mission-critical positions” include new deputy directors for operations, logistics and human resources. Currently managers carry out the responsibilities, but as the level of readiness is expanded, that practice will be “unsustainable,” he said.

In 2015, VITEMA wants to fill nine vacant 911 operator positions that will eliminate almost $240,000 in overtime pay. The 911 overtime budget for 2014 was $90,000.

“Before the end of this fiscal year, overtime costs will exceed the amount needed to fill the vacant 911 positions,” Lewis said.

Another almost $1 million is needed to enhance the 911 towers, Lewis said.

Objectives for 2015 include better communication capabilities, training for first responders, emergency managers and senior officials. Law enforcement, counter terrorism, medical, public information and active shooter courses are also planned along with annual tsunami, hurricane and communications exercises. VITEMA also plans community workshops and meetings and to distribute tsunami evacuation maps, Lewis said.

“On April 22, 2014, NOAA officially recognized the U.S. Virgin Islands as a tsunami-ready community, adding the territory to a list of 174 jurisdictions with this designation,” Lewis reported to the committee. “The distinction is bestowed on jurisdictions that have met a number of strict requirements, including establishing a 24-hour focal point to receive warnings, multiple methods of disseminating warning information, robust communications capabilities and the creation of a tsunami response plan.”

Senators asked Lewis about public alerts during Tropical Storm Bertha earlier this month. Sen. Myron Jackson said the VITEMA alerts were not as effective or timely as information from The Weather Channel. There was no information on Channel 2 or 8, he added.

Sen. Donald “Ducks” Cole wanted to know the chain of command to postpone the primary election scheduled the same day as Tropical Storm Bertha. Lewis said the Emergency Management Council is designated to recommend to the governor when to call a state of emergency and or curfew and the governor makes the final decision.

A top priority next year, Lewis said, will be to develop a volunteer organizations active in disaster (VOAD) with non-governmental agencies such as the American Red Cross, Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services. Through organization and communication among the charities, duplication and haphazardly delivered services can be eliminated, he said. The national VOAD is a forum for sharing information and resources throughout a disaster and is a contact for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Committee Chairman Sen. Clifford Graham asked a question Lewis could not definitively answer about underground versus overhead utility wiring. Al Javois, deputy director of VITEMA Readiness, said through contact with V.I. Water and Power Authority engineers he has learned that since the territory experiences more hurricanes than tsunamis, underground utilities are preferable.

Present during the budget hearing were Sens. Graham, Cole, Jackson, Terrence “Positive” Nelson, Nereida “Nellie” Rivera O’Reilly and Clarence Payne. Non-committee members Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Janette Millin Young and Tregenza Roach were also present.

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