Calvert White, commissioner nominee to the Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation, told lawmakers Tuesday that problems such as closed restrooms and beach upkeep are the result of staffing challenges and security concerns.
White, along with his leadership team at Sports, Parks and Recreation, testified before the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX) in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall. Lawmakers raised concerns brought by constituents about restrooms in certain public parks and beaches remaining closed, forcing residents to walk some distance to another restroom at a nearby park or find relief in the bush.
According to White, one reason for closing some restrooms is “a lot of vagrancies.”
“Whether they’re sleeping in the bathrooms or staying in them, and for security reasons and a lot of the times, for liability reasons, we close the bathrooms,” White said.
According to White, residents have the option to call the agency if they need to use the facilities. The agency would then send a custodian to open the restrooms, but Sports, Parks and Recreation simply does not have enough staff to man the facilities territory-wide to secure and maintain them, he said.
Vialet countered that the summer season means the territory’s parks would be used more often, urging White to find a way to make the facilities more available.
Lawmakers also raised concerns about the territory’s beaches, with Sen. Dwayne Degraff (D-STT) reporting that Vessup Beach was “atrocious” when he visited the area over the weekend.
White said beach upkeep poses a challenge given the agency’s lack of manpower and equipment. For example, there are only five groundskeepers on St. Thomas tasked with cleaning not just the beaches but all the parks under the agency’s jurisdiction.
The department’s fleet of vehicles, White said, is also in deplorable condition and it has yet to acquire two garbage trucks necessary to clean up the beaches. Vialet said the Senate may have identified the funding, hinting that acquisition of the two garbage trucks may be in the horizon.
White stressed that the department needs more employees. Within the past year, he said, the agency saw 14 positions vacated, six due to retirements and seven to resignations. Since the agency’s budget was submitted, its total filled positions dropped from 109 to 95. Of the 20 current vacancies, 14 are in the hiring process, but six remain vacant, including three lifeguard positions.
“[The department] continues to face challenges in recruiting qualified individuals to fill those critical positions,” White said.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw (I-STT) also called out what she called a decades-long practice of agency employees misusing resources, something she witnessed, she said, while serving as sports coordinator within the agency. The “gross misuse” has affected the agency’s budget, according to Sarauw.
“Employees going home with vehicles, using all the coupons to fill their tanks, operating as if structures belong to them and receiving the funding from them, and as we go forward, we’ll have to make difficult and tough decisions for the overall benefit of the territory. I witnessed a lot of that as an employee of [Sports, Parks and Recreation] and it’s painful,” Sarauw said.
This year, Sports, Parks and Recreation is requesting $7.75 million from the general fund. This represents an increase of 25 percent over last year’s budget of $6.2 million. Of that amount, $6.3 million would fund personnel and fringe benefits, with another $800,000 funding utilities. The remaining $720,000 will go toward supplies, other services and charges.
Virgin Islands Olympic Committee
V.I. Olympic Committee President Angel Morales also came before the Senate to request $300,000 for Fiscal Year 2020. This year, Gov. Albert Bryan did not recommend an amount in the miscellaneous section of the general fund for the Olympic Committee, with the Office of Management and Budget indicating that funding would fall under the Competitive Grants Project of the miscellaneous section, according to the Senate’s post auditor.
According to Morales, funds received from the general fund go toward helping their athletes qualify for and participate in upcoming games. The funds also help in identifying and developing young athletes, he said. Events like the St. Thomas International Regatta, the International Optimist Regatta, Basketball Olympic Qualifier Tournaments and FIFA Qualifier Tournaments have been hosted by the Olympic Committee’s member federations.
The Olympic Committee’s annual budget request of $300,000, which the government traditionally counters with $174,000 in appropriations, is actually less than half of its actual expenses. In Fiscal Year 2018, the committee’s expenses came up to $717,000. For the current fiscal year, it already has spent $419,000 with roughly ten more weeks left in the fiscal year.
For Fiscal Year 2019, the Office of the Governor recommended an appropriation of $225,000, but as of June 7, the Olympic Committee has not received any allotments, according to the Senate’s post auditor.