ST. THOMAS – An update on the territory’s financial health included discussions on jobs, government raises and roadworks during a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday.
Nellon Bowry, director of the Bureau of Management and Budget, said the economic health of the territory is improving as the mainland economy recovers from the 2008 financial collapse.
The latest reports from the Bureau of Economic Research, “indicate that tourism, the mainstay of the economy, is holding up,” and a number of factors including low interest rates, low oil prices and $ 149 million. dollars of capital funding through the Public Finance Authority VI will help stimulate the economy, Bowry said.
The $ 220 million HOVENSA / Limetree Bay Terminals settlement agreement has brought significant benefits to the local economy, Bowry says, but he cautioned against relying on one-time cash flow to solve the problems. tax of the territory in the long term.
It also forecast a revenue surplus of $ 106.5 million over existing appropriations, which will be reduced to $ 81.4 million after authorizing approximately $ 25 million in pending loan requests.
These appropriations include about $ 4 million in additional funding for the Department of Education and $ 21 million to fund salary increases for civil servants in about 60 percent of all departments.
Bowry said income tax collection was down 14% from the same period last year, mainly due to “one-time collections”.
Marvin Pickering, director of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, said his office was hiring additional staff who would generate more tax revenue, and tax assessor Ira Mills said they were also hiring tax collectors and expected to have a âfull complementâ of staff soon.
Senators criticized the bureaus for not hiring employees earlier, but said they were happy the workers were supposed to be in place before high tax season.
Bowry also said they had not yet factored in the additional tax revenue expected from the more than 300 workers who will be hired under the HOVENSA / Limetree deal, which is expected to start affecting income in 2017.
While Gov. Kenneth Mapp said in his state of the territory address that there were 876 vacant and funded government positions available, the VI Personnel Division was slow to list these jobs on its website.
Asked by senators on Tuesday, personnel manager Milton Potter said they were not going to “just post 800 vacancies on the website” and that it was up to each department to identify the vacancies and report them. ” alert the staff.
Potter said hiring is going at a “pretty aggressive pace” and “job postings come in, and as they come in we post them. I don’t think we’ve ever had this number of vacancies posted on our website, probably in the history of the Virgin Islands, we have several hundred at the moment.
As of Tuesday, the ministry’s website had 335 job listings listed. Of these, 246 jobs were for police officers or teachers.
The government is increasing
Bowry said Tuesday that $ 21 million had been earmarked for government increases, covering 3,431 employees in 12 agencies.
The first phase of increases will cover 1,008 employees and will begin in March, with an effective date of January 2016. Departments receiving salary increases during this phase will be Police, Personnel, Fire Services, Taxation , the licensing and consumer department, the finance department. and Ministry of Agriculture.
Bowry said the second phase will begin in June 2016 and will include 2,481 employees from corrections, education, the office of the lieutenant governor and social services.
Senators questioned whether the increases could be sustained in future budgets and to what extent the total increase would affect positions funded by federal dollars.
Bowry said it was not clear at this time how federal funding was factored into that figure, and departments were asked to “fine tune their bids” for salary increases to clarify this.
However, for federally funded salaries to be adjusted, “you have to redo the federal budget and resubmit it for approval,” Bowry said. “It will be a small amount, most of it will be general funds or local funds.”
“And there is no guarantee that your revised application will be approved by the federal government,” said Senator Terrence Nelson.
âThere are no guarantees,â Bowry agreed.
However, finance commissioner Valdamier Collens said he was confident the increases could be sustained through future income.
In a speech to the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce last week, Governor Kenneth Mapp said the territory can now use federal dollars for additional upkeep and upkeep of roads that are part of the federal intermodal system. These are numbered routes.
“Rather than keeping only road maintenance in the private sector, we are going to re-establish the Roads Division at the Ministry of Public Works, we are going to buy road machinery and equipment and this will allow us to hire 100 people in the territory,” 50 on each island, which will be specifically dedicated to the maintenance and upkeep of roads in the territory, âMapp said last week. “And their salaries and benefits will be paid entirely by federal funds.”
The governor said the 31st legislature proposed legislation before it to allow the government to purchase equipment for road maintenance and repair under an existing credit facility. Mapp said lawmakers could consider the bill as early as this month.
Public Works Commissioner Gustav James told senators on Tuesday that the cost of staff will be $ 2 million per year and that the additional staff will allow the ministry to upgrade the road network more consistently.
James said that $ 40 million of GARVEE, or Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle, federal bond funding has been allocated to the first phase of the Veterans Drive expansion project in St. Thomas.
He also discussed other St. Thomas road projects and said work has started on the $ 10 million Charlotte Amalie downtown revitalization project, and that projects in the second phase of the l The Moravian Highway and Crown Bay, at a cost of just under $ 3 million combined, are up for tender. .
The $ 6.2 million Turnpentine Run bridge project over St. Thomas is also in the tender phase, and a project to improve the intersection at the base of Raphune Hill has been awarded. There is also a $ 1.5 million upgrade to the planned VITRAN facility in St. Thomas, as well as a $ 9.5 million fire hall project and $ 500,000 renovations at Fort. Christian.
In St. John, a $ 1.2 million construction effort on Centerline Road has begun, James said.
St. Croix improvements include $ 4.8 million for Midland Road; $ 5.1 million in improvements to the Clifton Hill intersection and the connecting road at The Queen intersection; as well as $ 4 million for the Scenic Road phase II project.
Several GARVEE projects are also planned in Sainte-Croix, said James, including improvements to the Melvin Evans road costing $ 15 million; Mahogany Road at $ 8 million; Hams Bluff Road at $ 7 million; the first phase of the $ 9 million Spring Gut Road project; and works on Christiansted and Frederiksted streets each costing $ 3 million.
He also said the Paul E. Joseph Stadium project is under construction and Mapp is looking for an additional $ 15 million for a total of $ 35 million in improvements in the Frederiksted area, but the project could be completed within the current budget of $ 20 million if required. .