Fawkes defends $1.6M Elections budget


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ST. CROIX - V.I. Elections Supervisor Caroline Fawkes began her presentation before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday in support of a $1.6 million budget for the fiscal year that begins in October saying that adequate funding is critical because of November's General Election and because the Elections System is acquiring upgraded technological equipment for the advancement of the agency. Fawkes' request is an increase of more than $400,000 from the governor's budget recommendation.

Gov. John deJongh Jr. recommended a General Fund allocation of $1.4 million for Fiscal Year 2015, which comprises $78,866 for each of the district joint boards and $1.2 million for the Elections System. The governor's recommendation represents an increase of $5,724 above the FY 2014 appropriation.

The Election System also is receiving an additional $350,000 from the Miscellaneous Section of the budget and $100,000 in federal funds, according to the post auditor's analysis.

Fawkes noted the planned $350,000 appropriation in the Miscellaneous Budget for the 2014 General Election and said upon completion of the closing-out process for the Aug. 2 primary election, she will be able to tell whether $350,000 will be adequate as it was in 2012. "Virgin Islands electors are demanding more from the Election System, and only the Legislature can set a course, pass critical election reform measures and funding levels that will meet the needs of the Elections System going forward," she said.

Fawkes said every effort must be made by all parties - the Office of Management and Budget, the V.I. Finance Department and the Elections System - to ensure the territory is in full compliance with federal laws to retain or obtain federal funds.

Improvements and raises

Fawkes said the lump sum budget appropriation amount of $1.2 million would be adequate if the system did not have deficiencies in two of its three facilities. Because of the deficiencies, the Elections System needs an additional $425,000 to cover a $25,000 yearly leased space on St. John and $400,000 for the build-out of an adjacent 2,600-square-foot space in the Sunny Isle Annex on St. Croix, she said.

Fawkes also addressed employee concerns, saying they had not been granted step increases since 2009 and some of them are the lowest paid on the government wage scale.

"In communication with some board members, we would like to give the employees their hard-earned step increases in 2015, even if this means sacrificing in other budgeted areas," Fawkes said.

Elections boards

The district and joint boards of Elections fall under the umbrella of the Elections System, and the Joint Board of Elections is the policy-making body of the Election System. Each district board of Elections consists of seven members elected from the respective districts for a four-year term.

St. Croix District Board Chairman Adelbert Bryan told the Senate committee that the boards need to have full control of their monies. The boards are being financially violated by the Office of Management and Budget and the V.I. Finance Department, and are being treated like a child getting its weekly allowance to buy candy and soda, he said.

"The board of Elections is an independent elected government agency, not an executive department," Bryan said. "Over $2 million of the election fund is not properly accounted for or held in the accounts established for HAVA 2002."

Bryan said the board needs a lump sum budget to effectively function as an independent elected agency without obstruction from the non-elected executive agency heads.

St. Thomas-St. John Board Chairman Arturo Watlington Jr. submitted a $396,000 budget and asked the Senate to ignore the submission by the Office of Management and Budget. Because the board had no input in preparing that budget, it is not representative of the board's activities, he said. Watlington, as well as Joint Board Chairwoman Alecia Wells, asked that the 2014 General Election be funded through a line item under each district board's budget.

A unified front

Many of the accomplishment and deficiencies of the board were highlighted during the hearing, specifically with senators asking to see more of a unified front among the boards and the system.

Some of the mishaps of the primary election were discussed, and both board representatives and the Elections supervisor said they expect that the General Election will run more smoothly.

Fawkes said that the greatest barrier to free, fair and accessible elections is the system's cumbersome voter registration system, which she said currently is based on a "blizzard of paper records."

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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