David Hall, president of the University of the Virgin Islands, appeared in front of the Senate Committee on Finance Thursday, to to appeal for additional funding to sustain the institution and report on the school’s achievements and challenges.
At various time during his testimony and as he responded to questions posed by senators, Hall emphasized the need for additional funding. Citing various initiatives and new programs the university will undertake through its new proposed strategic plan, Hall explained the university’s growth was dependent on releasing budgetary constraints.
“We cannot achieve this goal with our hands tied behind our backs or wearing financial blindfolds because we are not being supported in the manner that an innovative and essential educational institution should be supported,” Hall said.
Some of the initiatives outlined in the new draft strategic plan, dubbed “Greatness Through Innovation,” includes:
– Implementation of a policy wherein any high school graduate in the Virgin Islands whose family income is below $100,000 will receive free tuition to attend UVI, and the development of an Entrepreneurial Community Center whose purpose is to create new industries and accelerate the growth of existing businesses. The strategic plan has yet to be adopted by the university board of directors.
Hall pointed out the FY2019 budget provided by Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp includes a reduction of $1.7 million in the General Operating section when compared to what was appropriated in FY2017.
Accepting this reduction “means that the operations of the university will continue to be negatively affected and our hands will continue to be tied as we eliminate numerous faculty and staff positions,” Hall said.
In response to questions posed by Sen. Marvin Blyden, Hall said there are 87 vacancies in Plant Operations, Security and faculty.
“It’s way too many,” Hall stated.
Adding to the fiscal burden, Hall said, is the spike in the university’s hurricane property insurance premium, which has increased by “close to $1 million, which we can only address by eliminating even more positions.”
Only $8 million of the $20 million insurance limit has been received so far, according to Hall.
“Damages to the St. Thomas campus greatly exceed that amount” he said, adding that the university attorney is working to “get the full amount.”
Damages to the facility by Hurricanes Irma and Maria exceeded $7 million on the St. Croix campus and more than $29 million on the St. Thomas campus. The major damage sustained on St. Croix was to the aquaponic farm, the Research and Technology Park and a section of the residence halls. On St. Thomas damage was sustained to the west residence hall, the Reichhold Center for the Arts, the main technology center, the environmental resource center and the campus radio station. Lighting on both campuses was also impacted.
Edwin Thomas, board chairman of the Research and Technology Park, gave an overview of that facility, which is housed on the St. Croix campus. Thomas described the RT Park as a “specialist economic agency that works to bring investment to the Virgin Islands by managing an inventive program and offering other advisory and technical services.”
The Park is “fully self-financing,” he said, and earns commercial revenue between $2 to 3 million annually. RT Park client services include telecom, internet and infrastructure, software development, internet advertising and development, intellectual property rights management, electronic publishing and other e-commerce and web-based services.
Since its inception the RT Park has grown from 27 clients in December 2014 to 54 in 2018. By the end of the year the number of clients “will surpass 60,” Thomas said. An analysis of the economic and social contribution made by the Park is available through a publication titled the Value and Contribution Study which can be accessed through the campus website at www.uvirtpark.net.
Sen. Kurt Vialet, Finance Committee chairman, queried Thomas on the level of compliance of RT Park clients. For instance, are the employees afforded health insurance, retirement options or other benefits. Thomas admitted “we have not been as diligent on compliance.” Vialet then suggested that oversight be merged with Economic Development Authority. That suggestion was met with swift opposition from both Thomas and Hall, who said he had “deep reservations” with any merger of compliance oversight.
“We will have further discussions on this matter,” Vialet said.
Attending the meeting were Finance Committee Chair Kurt Vialet, members Sens. Novelle Francis, Neville James, Janelle Sarauw, Marvin Blyden, Nelly Rivera-O’Reilly, Dwayne DeGraff and Tregenza Roach. Committee member Sen. at Large Brian Smith was not at the meeting.