St. Thomas Dairies employees going without paychecks as V.I. Education Department falls behind on its bills


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ST. THOMAS - The V.I. government's failure to pay its bills from a major school lunch vendor is putting the squeeze on St. Thomas Dairies and its employees.

Fred Hintz, the president of Trans-Caribbean Dairy Corp., better known as St. Thomas Dairies, said Thursday that the V.I. Education Department has not paid its bills from his company, some of which date back to August. The company provides milk to the department's federally funded school lunch program.

All told, the government owes St. Thomas Dairies about $240,000, which increases to more than $300,000 if the bills that are not yet past-due are included, Hintz said.

"What's discouraging is that we can't seem to get any straight answers," Hintz said.

Lacking answers from the Education Department, Hintz said, he has called the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor and several senators for help.

"Everyone - and no one seems to know," Hintz said.

The predicament is nothing new for Hintz, whose business was in a strikingly similar position two years ago.

In June 2010, Hintz told The Daily News that the Education Department owed St. Thomas Dairies about $300,000 for milk supplied to the school lunch program. Hintz said some of the department's outstanding invoices went back 120 days.

This time, Hintz had complimented the Education Department a little more than a month ago for its fiscal scrupulousness with recent bills.

Then, suddenly, the payments stopped coming.

"I don't know what's going on," Hintz said.

The late payments are creating a serious problem for St. Thomas Dairies, which announced in October that, in addition to laying off eight employees, it would scale back its operations to manufacture only milk and juices to fulfill contracts with the government and produce ice cream and some fruit juices for general distribution.

Hintz said because of the Education Department's non-payment, the company was not able to make payroll this week. For some salaried employees, it has been two or three weeks since they have seen a paycheck.

Still, the dairy has continued to provide its products to V.I. schools, Hintz said.

"I do believe we will eventually get paid," Hintz said. "If we don't get paid right away, it's not really an option to stop. Our employees have been very patient, but eventually they will reach a point where it's not worth it any more."

On top of this, the business still has to deal with its overhead, including a V.I. Water and Power Authority bill that averages about $45,000 a month, according to Hintz.

Assistant Education Commissioner Donna Gregory said she was unaware of the issue until she was contacted by The Daily News. She said the school lunch program and the two school districts in the territory are jointly responsible for making sure vendors such as St. Thomas Dairies get paid. One $48,000 payment from the St. Croix district has been sent to the V.I. Finance Department with a request that it be expedited, according to Gregory.

"We did push that through to Finance," she said.

Gregory said late Thursday that she "still needed to have those conversations" with respect to the unpaid balances from the St. Thomas-St. John district.

Gregory said she wished St. Thomas Dairies had notified her earlier but that she would work to resolve the issue.

"The bottom line is, I'm going to look into it and make sure St. Thomas Dairies gets paid," Gregory said.

Which should be welcome news for Hintz.

"We're still waiting, and we're in serious trouble," Hintz said.

- Contact Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email lmattei@dailynews.vi.

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