Getting the water taxis running on St. Thomas, keeping the territory’s town streets clean, stripping the edge of highways and building sidewalks in front of new developments were some of the concerns raised by senators at the Finance Committee hearing Monday.
Questions they asked Department of Public Works Commissioner Nelson Petty, Jr. included when all the guts would be cleared, when 28 vacancies will be filled and how his department could handle all the projects it had ongoing while taking a budget cut.
Petty testified that the administration was recommending an appropriation of $17.9 million from the General Fund for the Department of Public Works for 2020. The total funding for the department, including federal funds and other local dollars, would be $36.4 million, a million dollars less than last year’s budget.
As for water taxis running across Charlotte Amalie harbor, Petty said there would be a dry run of boats next month. He said the water taxis would hold 75 passengers and he hoped they would run on a regular schedule before tourist season.
Committee Chair Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX) said Public Works a decade or so ago had workers in Christiansted and Charlotte Amalie who carried nothing but shovels and whose only job was to keep the streets neat. He said it worked, the town streets were much cleaner then. He said there were residents looking for work who would keep the streets clean for $27,000 annually.
Vialet said he was in favor of a line item adding the hiring of such individuals.
Following up on Vialet’s comments Sen. Oakland Benta said he would support a line item in the budget to pay to hire cleanup workers for the towns.
When Petty was questioned about which developments had sidewalks put in when developed, Petty said they were put in wherever it was reasonable.
“We have a big push for walkability right now,” he said.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory (D-STT) said she didn’t believe the department was offering high enough salaries to attract Virgin Islanders, who earned engineering degrees and high paying jobs in the states, to come back home.
The starting salary for an entry level engineer at Public Works is $54,000.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw (I-STT) said school-bound students were playing “Russian Roulette” as they tried to cross Veteran’s Drive without any stoplight working there. Petty said the traffic light near Windward Passage on the waterfront had recently become operational and all the traffic signals would be working on the waterfront before the school year began.
He added a new program of signage and striping of the highways was ready to “roll out.”
Public transportation is part of Public Works purview. Karole McGregor, deputy commissioner of transportation, said the territory would be receiving 10 new, medium-duty buses next month. Two of the buses will go to St. John.
The companies running ferries between St. John and St. Thomas have not received payments from the government since 2012. Payments are part of their franchise agreement with the government. Petty said the payments could not be made because the companies had not presented audited financial statements to his department and those documents are required before the government can make payments.
Public Works began its annual ghut cleaning efforts last month. Petty told senators about 90 percent of that work was complete. According to a news release issued last week, “On St. Croix, of the total 26 ghuts, 13 have been cleared, seven are in progress and 6 are (were) scheduled to begin on June 27. On St. Thomas, of the 28 ghuts, 15 are clear, four are in progress and eight are scheduled to be cleared this week. On the island of St. John, all ghuts have been cleared.”
The department heads indicated there were 140 vehicles in Public Works’ fleet. St. Croix has 50 vehicles. St. Thomas has 68 vehicles and St. John has 22 vehicles.
Public Works is managing 80 projects, including work on Melvin Evans Highway; Main Street enhancement in Charlotte Amalie; work on Veterans’ Drive and Raphune Hill Road, St. Thomas; bike path on St. Croix; and Spring Gut and Scenic roads also on St. Croix.
Correction: A statement on salaries from Sen. Donna Frett Gregory was initially misattributed. It has been corrected.