Government land on St. Croix that formerly held a detention center and that the Legislature gave to the American Legion for a clubhouse in 2014 will instead be deeded to the Department of Health for a future mental health facility, if a bill approved in committee Friday becomes law. The Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee approved the legislation that would instead give away a different parcel of land to the American Legion and help prepare the property.
In 2014, the V.I. Legislature took time out from passing budget bills filled with severe budget cuts to give away 10 acres of government land on St. Croix to American Legion Post 102 and let it use a government building in Peter’s Rest rent-free indefinitely.
That bill sponsored by former Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen conveyed a 9.9 acre parcel at Plot No. 184 Estate Anna’s Hope to the Enrique Romero Nieves American Legion Post 102 for a new clubhouse. It was introduced during session and approved without testimony or discussion, bypassing the committee process. Earlier that year it also appropriated $300,000 of taxpayer money as a gift to that veterans’ fraternity to help it build the private clubhouse in question.
Senators were very supportive of the measure in 2014, using the word "veteran" often. The bill approved Friday switches the parcel of land, instead giving the American Legion 3.37 acres at Plot No. 29 Estate Anna’s Hope.
On Friday, Sen. Kurt Vialet introduced the measure, saying he had many family members who are veterans and supported veterans’ causes, but that there was a greater need for a mental health facility than for a third American Legion hall on St. Croix.
The island has a severe unmet need, with some homeless wandering in the streets who are mentally ill, but there is no public mental health facility, he said.
"We started looking around for a facility," and started looking at the former detention center at Anna’s Hope, Vialet said.
"I saw the facility was perfectly configured to house mental patients," he said, adding that there are individual rooms with separate plumbing and an area to set up a guard station. With some funding, it could be up and running, he said.
Officials from the Health Department, Department of Justice and Property and Procurement testified in support.
"Having a facility on St. Croix will allow us to provide family support services, which will be beneficial to the overall success of the patient’s implemented treatment plan," said Taetia Phillips-Dorsett, assistant commissioner of Health. The department would need help from other agencies and funding for renovation, but keeping patients on island instead of paying to care for them off-island would save about $4 million per year, she said.
Deputy Attorney General Joseph Ponteen said the structure on the property was built as a detention center in 1972 but fell into disuse after an expansion at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility. Then-Attorney General Alva Swan led an effort to rehabilitate the facility and nearly had it ready, when Swan passed away. Since then, it has been unused, but could be rehabilitated, Ponteen said.
Voting to send the measure on to the Rules and Judiciary Committee were Vialet, Sens. Marvin Blyden, Jean Forde, Justin Harrigan and Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly. Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd was absent.