As Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. addressed the people of the Virgin Islands last week with his annual State of the Territory speech, two stakeholders in the audience listened with particular care. For Senate President Novelle Francis Jr., and Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett, the governor’s status report offered a moment to reflect on how to help the chief executive make progress.
For Plaskett, the focus moves towards securing federal funds to move the governor’s agenda.
Francis, on the other hand, looks at how some of those dollars are spent and how they can be spent effectively.
In remarks made after the one-hour, 45-minute speech, the Senate president noted the role of the Legislature to control government spending.
In his speech, the governor touched on almost every aspect overseen by the executive branch: public safety, public pensions, public utilities, health insurance, mental health, payment of tax refunds, education, roads, housing, tourism; the V.I. Lottery, waste management, and the use of technology to streamline vehicle registration.
But among the biggest of the big-ticket items is the continuing disaster recovery from the 2017 Hurricane Season. The Virgin Islands is expected to receive $8 billion in federal funds, coming from two primary sources – the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In first impressions given immediately after Bryan’s speech, Plaskett recalled the efforts from Congress to help secure the $8 billion.
“We worked really hard to get that. The requirements that FEMA, as well as HUD, are putting on us,” Plaskett said, “I think he’s going to continue to need the support of our office in terms of being able to receive the federal funding … as he said, we need capacity as well as systems in place.”
Bryan said the newly formed Office of Disaster Recovery represents capacity building.
“We have built the capacity within the Office of Disaster Recovery to manage the funding and associated projects through internal staff and third-party project managers. We have also put in place the appropriate controls to avoid expending funds without the necessary documentation, because we do not want to have to pay back a dime,” he said.
Another chunk of disaster recovery funds are expected to arrive through the Federal Highway Emergency Relief Program. A long list of road projects made it into the State of the Territory, both long term projects that have been completed in phases as well as projects brought on by damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
“In September of last year through our hard work, FEMA granted the territory permission to repair all federal and local damaged roads funded by the Public Assistance program to rigorous federal highway standards,” Bryan said in his annual report on the state of the territory.
Part of that hard work, again, taking place on Captiol Hill; this time over federal limits on spending levels to territories.
“I think there are other areas where our support is important. Where he talked about federal funding and he talked about highway relief this year. We were able to get the caps removed,” the delegate said.
And while the immediate assessment of several lawmakers was that there was nothing new in this years’ State of the Territory, the Senate president said he would take a close look at the governor’s expressed goals for 2020.
For one, overcoming the delays that have kept a temporary Juan Luis Hospital from opening its doors. Bryan blamed poor decisions made by the previous hospital administration.
Francis stressed the importance for Bryan’s administration to furnish the facility and install the fixtures needed for its day to day operations.
There are also $110 million in marine infrastructure projects promised by the Port Authority and a plan to process 70 percent of the waste held at two municipal landfills to deter the kind of problems occurring frequently there.
“As a leader of this first branch of government, I’ll be taking some due diligence to review all of the measures that have been put in place today, and look at ways we are able to ensure those goals are met and how we can assist in making that happen,” Francis said.
And where those goals are deemed unrealistic, the Senate president said lawmakers will work to adjust the parameters, “and make sure we’re focused on those areas.”