Senators Challenge Fire Service Over Requested $7 Million Budget Increase

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory questions a panel of Fire Service testifiers about the proposed budget increase. (Photo by Barry Leerdam)

The Virgin Islands Fire Service requested a budget increase of more than $7 million for its Fiscal Year 2020 budget with little explanation as to why, leaving senators to express puzzlement during Thursday’s Finance Committee hearing.

Within the Legislature’s post audit analysis, four categories are highlighted in which costs were increased from the prior fiscal year, but the document gives little information as to why these changes were made or what the money is allotted for.

One of these categories, “other services and charges,” saw the largest increase with a 408 percent change from the prior year. The category titled “utility services” saw the second largest change with a 100 percent increase from the prior year. Though these categories had the largest percentage change, they were not the largest monetary variants when compared to Fiscal Year 2019.

The “personnel services” category had a more than $5 million variant and the “fringe benefits” category had a more than $1.5 million variant compared to last year’s figures.

Senators expressed concern about a nearly 38 percent increase to the Fire Service’s budget.

“I would have to agree with my colleagues on the concern as it relates to coming before the Senate and requesting such a huge increase and not having a clear laid out plan as to how this is going to work,” said Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory. “I think it would be very irresponsible of myself as well as my colleagues for us to even begin to consider this when absent of a clear road map.”

“The Fire Service’s annual General Fund appropriation accounts for a majority of the agency’s budget and is the primary source of funding for the agency’s operations,” said V.I. Fire Service Director Daryl George Sr. He added that the recommended budget of $27,096,572 would provide funding for negotiated pay raises, current Fire Service personnel, as well as personnel costs for Emergency Medical Service employees to be transferred to the agency.

Of the recommended General Fund contribution, more than $4.2 million is allotted for the Emergency Medical Service personnel, which George said would require phases. The first phase “would be to transfer funding from the Department of Health to the Fire Service for personnel costs and fringe benefits.” The second phase would be “the strategic plans we have with the unions, the employees and management.”

Sen. Janelle Sarauw at Thursday’s hearing. (Photo by Barry Leerdam)

Sen. Janelle Sarauw challenged George, saying “we need a thorough outline of that phasing project because you just put a big number and your budget went up from $19,856,898 to a recommendation of $27,096,572. So if you are going to have an increase of nearly $8 million in your budget for that phasing process then you need to be thorough on how that will happen…we’re talking about fiscal responsibility, this is imperative.”

Sen. Sarauw also pointed out various deficiencies within the budget. “Do you understand why your budget is off though? Do you understand why we are having a hard time with the budget book and these numbers, because numbers are bouncing all over and junior firefighters aren’t even included in the budget at this point,” Sarauw said.

George said “it was an oversight on my part.” He said he thought that had been put in the budget’s miscellaneous section.

By the end of the Finance Committee hearing senators had requested six documents to better understand the proposed budget. The following requests were made: a corrected list of federal grants for FY 2020, the number of inspections conducted per island, a written plan for the EMS integration, the amount collected for fines to date, the cost of raises for FY 2020 along with a comparative analysis to FY 2019, and more information on the additional $7 million and what it represents.