Senators frustrated with VITEMA's lack of progress
Published: August 23, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - During his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on Thursday, V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency Executive Director Elton Lewis reassured senators that the territory is prepared to handle a disaster.
However, senators expressed their frustration with Lewis that some of VITEMA's projects from last year have made little progress.
Lewis has proposed an $11.15 million overall budget for Fiscal Year 2014 amid questions about the agency's current vacancies and back pay owed to 911 dispatchers.
The budget hearing also came on William Linzey's final day as assistant director of VITEMA. Linzey announced his resignation earlier this week, though he did not release his resignation letter.
The proposed FY 2014 budget would be about $3.26 million more than the current fiscal year budget for the agency, though it would consist of only $4.3 million from the General Fund, which is about $150,000 less than this year's amount from the General Fund.
Most of the increase in the overall budget would be from the expected receipt of a more than $4.69 million in federal funding, $3 million of which would be from a federal grant that the territory could use for flood mitigation, according to Renata Christian, VITEMA's deputy director for grants management. This year, the territory received slightly less than $1.52 million in total federal funding.
The flood mitigation grant would help put into place measures that would prevent flooding in low-lying areas, which the territory has seen in years past, Christian said.
However, the agency has not yet applied for the grant, and it must do so by October, otherwise, without the application, the agency cannot receive the funding, Christian said.
Whether the agency wisely spent this year's funds, however, was up for debate among members of the Finance Committee, who questioned why more had not been accomplished since the same time last year.
Senators were frustrated when they heard that some of the agency's projects had made little progress since last year.
For instance, VITEMA wanted to move its St. Croix operations from its temporary facility back into the Hermon Hill facility. VITEMA moved its St. Croix employees out of because of a mold problem in 2010.
However, VITEMA currently does not have the funding - about $5 million - to make the improvements needed for the Hermon Hill facility, Lewis said.
Senators also were concerned that many of the territory's emergency resources are stored on Puerto Rico, which could be an issue if transport by air and water are prevented following a disaster. They urged Lewis to take action quickly.
Lewis agreed that it is an issue and said he is looking for a storage facility that will accommodate the agency's needs,
"I'm tired of the same story every year. What I like to hear is that, 'We are finishing it up,'" said Sen. Nereida Rivera-O'Reilly.
VITEMA officials said that they have a number of projects that they are working on that likely will be finished in the upcoming fiscal year.
One of those projects is to install sirens to alert residents of a tsunami. Currently, VITEMA has four sirens at waterfront locations on St. Thomas, four on St. Croix and two on St. John - the same number of sirens it had in August 2011. Another six are expected on St. Thomas for more inland neighborhoods, as well as six more planned for St. Croix.
"It's not if, but actually when," Lewis said, explaining that another tsunami eventually would hit the territory.
The agency also said that it is working on getting back pay owed to 911 dispatchers incurred during the last three years. Though the agency has missed several deadlines to pay them, it would do so no later than the end of the fiscal year, according to Debra Henneman-Smith, VITEMA's deputy director for finance and administration.
Lewis earlier this week said he had reached out to various government departments - the V.I. Personnel Division, the V.I. Finance Department, the V.I. Justice Department and the Office of Collective Bargaining - for help in resolving the back pay issue, which affects 46 dispatchers.
"We cannot keep taking advantage of people like this," said Sen. Kenneth Gittens.
Gittens, chairman of the Senate's Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee, also said he takes issue with Lewis's decision to discontinue giving a pay differential to emergency dispatchers who work at night, a decision that went into effect July 18.
Gittens also questioned why the agency was not filling the agency's nine dispatcher vacancies more quickly.
VITEMA has incurred more than $52,000 in overtime costs because of the current vacancies at the dispatch center, Henneman-Smith said. The overtime will be covered by the cost-savings from the vacant positions, she said.
"It's been tough," Lewis said, noting that the agency has struggled with a variety of Human Resources issues during the last fiscal year.
The agency has not had a Human Resources Department since 2010, said Henneman-Smith, who has been overseeing the bulk of Human Resources issues that arise within the agency.
"My staff and I are working diligently," she said.
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.