After hearing updates from three government agencies Tuesday, the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice and Public Safety spent the majority of the session questioning expenditures, including the price of ambulances recently purchased by the Department of Health.
The first testifier speaking on behalf of the V.I. Police Department, St. Croix Police Chief Winsbut McFarland presented statistics indicating a 22 percent drop in crimes in 2016. Violent crimes, including murder, rape, robbery and felony assault, decreased from 652 in 2015 to 554 in 2016 territorywide. Burglaries dropped from 707 in 2015 to 558 in 2016. According to McFarland, there were 448 complaints against VIPD and 218 were settled.
McFarland said accomplishments included providing anti-bullying training to 2,000 public school students and creating a performance appraisal system for employees.
Rick Mulgrav, director of the V.I. Bureau of Corrections, spoke of renovations at the prison, including a new kitchen and cafeteria. A new camera system was installed at the facility on St. Croix and the air conditioning on St. Thomas were updated, he said.
A video system that allows families to communicate with prisoners housed in stateside facilities was also installed at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility.
Mulgrav spoke of challenges facing his department and hiring qualified prison guards was at the top of the list.
“Many have chosen to leave the Virgin Islands, leaving the hiring pool very shallow,” he said.
The lack of a training facility and a crumbling prison have drained resources, and the St. Croix prison needs perimeter fencing to contain farm animals, he said.
“The easiest way to solve this is to build a new facility and an annex on St. Thomas,” Mulgrav said.
Senator Sammuel Sanes said the cost of a new facility – estimated at $40 to $170 million – is “overwhelming.”
Mulgrav suggested rebuilding over a period of time.
Health Commissioner Dr. Michelle Davis acknowledged that the V.I. Health Department does not provide services comparable to stateside facilities. “It is no secret that the department has a history of underperformance,” Davis said.
Davis said she is working with her staff to assess challenges and that a budget is being developed to revamp and realign services. Goals include implementing a background check procedure for employees and increasing emergency services staff and equipment.
Emergency Medical Services comprises fewer than 80 employees for both districts, according to Davis. She said ambulances are in short supply and often out of commission due to their age and the road conditions.
Additionally, the V.I. government has cut the department’s budget by 4 percent, which adds to the difficulties.
Five new ambulances have been ordered but will not arrive for five or six months, according to Davis.
Senators questioned the delay, pointing out that funds were approved in April and wanted to know why ambulances for St. Croix cost so much more than those for St. Thomas.
Three ambulances for St. Thomas will cost $429,000 and two for St. Croix will run $428,830, according to testifiers. David Sweeney, EMT coordinator, said the more expensive vehicles could not negotiate the hills and narrow roads on St. Thomas.
Property and Procurement Commissioner Randolph Bennett joined the session by phone to explain the cost of the vehicles and the delay in delivery. He said he followed recommendations from EMS and Health Department staff when selecting the models.
Senator Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly said that “need,” not “want,” should have been taken into consideration before purchasing the ambulances.
Senator Jean Forde said he would rather the department purchase another ambulance – a total of six instead of five – and Sen. Kurt Vialet said the he didn’t see any justification for the discrepancy in vehicle cost.
“We gave $10 million because we expected the executive branch to use it wisely,” Vialet said.
Bennett was pressed to adjust the deal and purchase the same vehicles for each island by the committee. He said he would call as soon as he was off the phone to change the arrangements.
Attending the session were committee members Sanes, Forde, Francis, Rivera-O’Reilly, Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Justin Harrigan Sr. and Almando “Rocky” Liburd. Vialet also attended although he is not a member of the committee.