In a scathing review of farming practices in the territory, Agriculture Commissioner Positive T.A. Nelson told lawmakers on Tuesday that the department will make changes targeting alleged abuses by Virgin Islands farmers, from long-term squatting on government land, building unauthorized structures on land meant for farming and lagging years behind on the cheap annual fee for using government acreage.
“When you start to press for change, all of them are going to come to the Senate,” Nelson said. “All I’m asking is we have the dialogue, but there’s going to be a change because there is a lot of abuse going on, particularly with government properties.”
Nelson made the remarks during the Senate Finance Committee budget hearing at the University of the Virgin Islands Great Hall on St. Croix, where the commissioner and his team defended the agency’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget. The Bureau of Corrections also presented its budget during Tuesday’s session.
According to Nelson, one of the major problems is farmers squatting on government land without a lease.
“Most of the abuse is in Bordeaux where the land is being used for other than farming, where there’s squatting on the land. We’re getting complaints that stereo systems are loud at night,” he said, referring to the farming region on the western end of St. Thomas.
Some farmers who do have leases also build unauthorized structures such as homes on land meant specifically for farming activities, according to Nelson, while others fail to pay the meager fee – $20 per acre per year – due to the department. Some farmers are in arrears for three to four years, according to Agriculture officials, an issue that Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, had already brought to Nelson’s attention.
“Their farmland is not to be lived on, and if it is going to be that, then it’s a different relationship with a different cost,” Nelson said. “But individuals can’t expect to pay $20 and have a homestead and hardly producing.”
Nelson said abuses of critical resources such as water also occur. In Estate Dorothea, for example, the department’s piping and faucet have experienced vandalism. Farmers in the area, he said, sometimes create their own taps into the water lines, putting additional strain on an already overworked pump.
“Currently, we ration water on a rotating schedule because of the existing abuse,” Nelson said, adding that this “abuse of water-use privileges by farmers” led to the implementation of a metered water system on St. Thomas and St. Croix, which the department is developing.
According to Nelson, the department is in conversation with federal agencies to conduct a groundwater assessment that he hopes leads to a different approach to the water crisis: drilling a well close to natural springs on sites of higher elevation.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw (I-STT) shared her own stories of abuses in Bordeaux, calling it “a lawless environment.”
“You’re growing cannabis plants, you squat in the land, you’re taking power from the power pole, you’re putting holes into the water lines,” she said.
According to Nelson, the department also lacks teeth when it comes to enforcement. Some farmers violating department policies have been taken to small claims court, which can take a long time to resolve. The department has the ability to create a citation book, but that document has to be backed by the court, and the agency’s attempts to get help from the V.I. Department of Justice have yielded no fruit so far, he said.
Nelson also criticized farming trends in general, saying many farmers do not adequately produce, instead working the land on a part-time basis after getting home from a day job. Nelson also said farmers have come to expect urgent services from the department that are offered “nowhere else under the American flag,” then fail to act on them.
“Sometimes we go around preparing land, and they make demands and they call whatever office and we go, and then we get to go back a couple of years later and the same land we’re being rushed to clean, they’ve done nothing with,” Nelson said.
“Unfortunately, because of this sideways, hobby type of what we call farming, we have people expecting the department to do everything for them. Their harvest, their yield, they under report, and they cheat the government on two ends: from the service end and from the tax end,” he added.
This year, the Department of Agriculture is asking for $4.9 million from the general fund, $400,000 of which would come the miscellaneous section of the fund. Of the full budget amount, $2.5 million and $1.2 million would be used for personnel and fringe benefits respectively. The department’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget is slightly smaller than last fiscal year’s budget by less than one percent.
Bureau of Corrections
Bureau of Corrections Director Wynnie Testamark also testified before the Senate Finance Committee, highlighting the bureau’s staffing challenges that hinder it from getting out of its consent decrees. Of the bureau’s 215 authorized positions, 74 are vacant, amounting to roughly 34 percent of its positions remaining unfilled. Testamark said many issues arising out of the consent decrees at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix and the Alexander Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex on St. Thomas ultimately come down to this chronic staffing shortage.
“There are 65 correctional officers at Golden Grove; the consent decree requires 74 officers. There are 30 correctional officers at the CJC; the federal consent decree requires that there be 63. More than 50 percent of correctional officer positions on St. Thomas are vacant; 14 percent on St. Croix,” Testamark told senators.
As a result of the staffing shortages, not only will the bureau have difficulty getting out of the consent decrees, it will also continue to spend heavily on overtime for its existing correctional officers. In Fiscal Year 2017 alone, she said, the Bureau spent roughly $3.8 million, or 21 percent of that year’s payroll, on overtime. If all the vacant correctional officer positions were filled, she said, that number would drop to roughly $810,000.
“But in all likelihood, the bureau won’t be able to fill these vacant correctional officer positions, and overtime expenditures will almost certainly exceed the budgeted amount,” she said.
As a temporary remedy, the bureau has been using funds for vacant positions to pay correctional officer overtime, according to Testamark. The bureau is also embarking on aggressive recruitment campaign, she said.
Another large chunk of the bureau’s budget goes toward paying vendors that provide critical services to the bureau’s 176 local inmates and an additional 203 inmates housed in off-island facilities on the U.S. mainland. Vendor payments for services like medical care for prisoners, payments to off-island facilities, food service payments are estimated to be $12 million for Fiscal Year 2020, according to Testamark, or roughly 35 percent of the bureau’s total budget.
The cost of medical and mental health care, however, is excluded from that amount, according to Testamark.
For Fiscal Year 2020, Gov. Albert Bryan recommended $34.36 million from the general fund for the Bureau of Corrections. Of that amount, $14.6 million would fund personnel salaries while $5.9 million would go to fringe benefits.
Present at Tuesday’s Finance Committee hearing were Sens. Marvin Blyden (D-STT), Alicia Barnes (D-STX), Oakland Benta (D-STX), Dwayne Degraff (D-STT), Donna Frett-Gregory (D-STT) Sarauw and Vialet. Non-committee member Sen. Allison Degazon (D-STX) was also present.