Senators Question Procurement Process, Other Issues

Property and Procurement Commissioner Anthony Thomas is peppered by questions from the Senate Finance Committee Friday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
Property and Procurement Commissioner Anthony Thomas is peppered by questions from the Senate Finance Committee Friday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

When Commissioner Anthony Thomas brought the proposed budget for the Department of Property and Procurement before the Senate’s Finance Committee Friday, he was greeted with questions about how he was doing his job.

Senators’ concerns ranged from comments he made to his staff to a new process for approving contracts to leases to Seaborne and Hotel on the Cay.

Presenting his budget the same day, Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol did not face questions over such a broad area. Senators asked only if reopening of the refinery was being properly monitored for pollution and whether Jeffrey Epstein paid the proper fines for environmental violations on his island. Oriol said he had been meeting with officials from Limetree Bay Refinery once a week for the last six months and the proper monitoring stations were being put in. He said Epstein had paid one fine of $160,000 and another fine was being looked at. He added that Epstein had sent a check designated for a certain area, but that check had been returned.

Sen. Sen. Allison DeGazon was upset that Thomas had told his staff not to call senators anymore. She said it was the right of the employees to call their legislative representatives. Thomas defended himself saying his effort was to make his department work more as a team.

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said the new procurement process would still include “25 or 18 stops” before approval and it would “blow up in our faces.” She noted how contracts go back and forth between legal counsels in different agencies before being approved.

Thomas said, though the process would still require all the legal counsels’ approval, the use of SharePoint would speed up the process. He said all parties would be able to look at the necessary documents at the same time.

Frett-Gregory responded that she was “not impressed.”

Thomas told senators that he recognized the department had an “immediate need to change the way we do business.”

SharePoint is a product of Microsoft that creates a secure place to store, organize, share, and access information from almost any device.

In response to a question from Sen. Kurt Vialet, chairman of the committee, Thomas said the lease for Hotel on the Cay in Christiansted was more than $300,000 in arrears. Asked if the lessee was being taken to court, Thomas said he knew of several entities interested in taking over the lease of this “prime piece of real estate.”

Thomas said the lease expired at the end of this year and, instead of legal action, the department would look for someone to take over the property at the beginning of next year.

Vialet also had questions about leases the department had with Seaborne Airlines. He said Seaborne was getting the leases free and “charging our residents an exorbitant rate for flights.”

Several senators expressed concern about contracts to vendors supplying food to the school lunch program. Thomas said contracts had been executed on Thursday. Vialet asked, “Are we trying to approve the contract the day before school starts?”

Thomas replied that the process had begun in April.

Property and Procurement’s proposed fiscal year 2020 operating budget is $17.1 million. The recommendation includes $4 million for personnel services, $1.7 million projected for fringe benefits, $250,600 for supplies, $600,000 for utilities, $8 million miscellaneous appropriation for insurance coverages and related services for government buildings and properties, $100,000 for appraisal services, $157,300 for federal flood insurance renewal, and $1 million for other services.

The department’s budget request covers salaries for 69 employees and 14 vacancies.

The amount requested from the general fund is $11.6 million.

Natural Resources is requesting $33.4 million. Its general fund amount would be $8.9 million. Personnel costs would be $10 million $4.1 million. Supplies costs are calculated to be $913,731 and utilities in the amount of $601,965.

The General Fund request is a 2 percent increase over the current fiscal year, which expires at the end of the month.

Oriol testified that the request will cover the costs of it 83.55 employees.

Col. Kodjo S. Knox-Limbacker, commander of the V. I. National Guard, testified to the senators concerning a proposed budget request from the general fund for $2.3 million. The request represents an increase of $1 million, or about double last year’s. He said the request from “the Virgin Islands government, is 23 times less than the federal projected contribution of $52,880,000.”

In business unrelated to budget the senators voted and approved two fund transfers and an act amending how gross receipt tax penalties are assessed.

Attending the hearing were Sens. Vialet, Marvin Blyden, Alicia Barnes, Frett-Gregory, Dwayne DeGraff, Janelle Sarauw and DeGazon.