“There are issues” with spending $8 billion dollars of hurricane recovery federal funds, Adrienne Williams-Octalien, director of the Office of Disaster Recovery, told senators meeting as a Committee of the Whole on Wednesday.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said the process was “messy” and she is very concerned.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens was blunter in his assessment during the hearing on recovery efforts. He said, “We cannot continue like this.” He was concerned about companies and consultants who had come into the territory to help with the recovery efforts.
“All they see is money,” he said.
Sen. Kurt Vialet said one contractor, AECOM, was “overcharging the Virgin Islands government.” AECOM originally had a contract for $95 million but with change orders its contract went to $225 million. Vialet said the territory could have built four schools with the amount AECOM charged for the temporary structures.
The 27-page testimony read by Williams-Octalien talked of progress, as did the testimony of Daryl Griffith, executive director of the V.I. Housing Finance Authority. Griffith said the Authority’s Emergency Home Repair program temporarily repaired 6,560 homes, allowing residents to safely shelter in place, and it also provided permanent roof repairs to 1,516 homeowners. The permanent roof repairs were done in accordance with the territory’s 2019 Stronger Home Guide.
Williams-Octalien told the senators the federal recovery funds provided an opportunity for the territory not only to get back to where it was prior to the hurricanes but also to help it build a stronger, more resilient territory.
However, senators were more interested in consultant costs for Ernst and Young and Witt O’Brien. The Ernst and Young initial contract was for $5 million and it rose to $32 million.
Leo O’Shea, a senior vice president of AECOM, said the company had worked diligently so the temporary modular and Sprung facilities would be operational on the islands for the Department of Education to resume full day, K-12 instruction.
He added that students are currently utilizing them a second school year, restoring “a sense of normalcy for families across the territory.”
The other main contractor testifying at the hearing was APTIM. Jon Grant, chief financial officer for APTIM, read that testimony, which said the company’s efforts had resulted in 324 jobs for Virgin Islanders. The testimony also said APTIM began working on the St. Croix school campuses in June 2018 and completed work in October 2018. In addition to repairs to school campuses, it was designing and constructing a temporary home for the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital. The company also participated in repairing roofs and homes under the Emergency Home Repairs Program. The seven campuses the company worked at were John H. Woodson Junior High School, Pearl B. Larsen Elementary, Alfredo Andrews Elementary, Alexander Henderson Elementary, Eulalie Rivera Elementary, Lew Muckle Elementary and Central High School.
Grant said further progress was being hampered because APTIM was owed more than $170 million by Virgin Islands’ government.
Griffith testified that FEMA indicated that more than $200 million could soon be accessed by the authority to pay down bills to contractors.
Several senators objected to the notion alluded to by testifiers that the recovery process was slow because the Virgin Islands did not have the trained personnel to do the job. Vialet said that is why the government hired the contractors and the consultants. He said the amount being paid to them was higher than the combined annual budgets of several government agencies.
Referring to the consultants and contractors, Frett-Gregory said, “We are paying them a lot of money and our people are not getting what they need.”
Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. asked the contractors and consultants if they felt good about what they are doing. He said, “You live high off the hog in plush rooms while my people are suffering living under blue roofs.”
In a news release announcing the hearing, Francis said, “Two years after the 2017 hurricanes, we still have people who are unsure about whether their homes will be repaired and feel overlooked in this recovery process. Our tax base is impacted when local subcontractors aren’t paid and our economic growth – which relies heavily on infrastructure improvement, to include the buildout of our hospitals and schools, has been slow to start.”
The Department of the Interior provided $3 million last year for the territory to create and fund an Office of Disaster Recovery.
Sens. Steven. Payne Sr. and Janelle Sarauw were absent from Wednesday’s hearing.