The Senate Finance Committee heard testimony Wednesday to support Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget by the Department of Public Works commissioner and other members of his staff.
The DPW Commissioner Derek Gabriel and others sought to justify Bryan’s $24,351,949 budget for Public Works next year, which is down from $26,497,194 for 2022.
Public Works is responsible for designing, constructing, and maintaining government buildings, public roads, parking areas, and highways. They also manage and maintain public cemeteries, provide transportation, preserve and protect government property in natural disasters and oversee mass transportation.
From the total budget, personnel services account for 31.2 percent, fringe benefits equal 15.3 percent, supplies are 3.2 percent, other services account for 44.5 percent, utilities make up 3.7 percent, and 2.1 percent is for capital outlays, according to Wednesday’s hearing.
The largest category, “other services” ($10,840,334), includes advertising and promotion, communication, professional services, bulk airline tickets, rental machines and equipment, and training, with almost $5 million for repairs and maintenance and $5.3 million for the VITRAN bus system.
Personnel is projected to cost $7,603,598 for 230 employees and $3,736,016 for fringe benefits.
Ninety-one percent ($776,000) of the Supplies budget is for operating supplies. Minor equipment counts for 3.9 percent, uniforms 1 percent, food and catering at 3.5 percent, and office supplies less than one percent.
Almost $9 million will be used for roadway projects in the St. Thomas/St. John District including Mandahl Road, Frenchman’s Bay Road, Prindsens Gade, Hospital Ground Road, Estate Hope road, a section of Centerline Road on St. John, and others, according to the hearing. An additional $10.8 million from the American Rescue Plan will fund other projects on St. Thomas and St. John.
Gabriel said $35,271,859 in federal funds are expected next year, and the current balance of federal funds is $92,057,667 for 59 awarded highway projects.
Jomo McClean, DPW’s federal highway program manager, said the top active projects include road work at Clifton Hill /Melvin Evans Highway and the Container Port Intersection, the Melvin Evans Highway from Good Hope to William’s Delight, and three bridge projects on St. Croix.
The governor’s budget for Public Works includes $201 million for engineering roads and buildings throughout the territory. The 2023 operations budget for Public Works also includes $272,000 for the cemetery fund, $123,000 for asphalt, and $3.6 million for roadside contractors.
An allotment of $9,374,319 is for the Division of Transportation, including bus shelters and VITRAN, and the DPW Disaster Recovery division will receive almost $138 million for work in the territory.
After the testimony, senators had questions about staffing, roads, VITRAN, and equipment.
Sen. Kurt Vialet, committee chair, asked if the department was staffed adequately, adding that at one time, there were 700 employees compared to the current staffing of 230 people.
“Every position is critical,” Gabriel replied.
It is difficult to hire janitorial personnel, the commissioner said. Most of the time, there aren’t even enough to keep the towns clean. Because most get promoted, workers are often deployed to other locations.
VITRAN also is in need of personnel, especially bus drivers. Karole McGregor, deputy commissioner of DPW Transportation, said there are five new VITRAN drivers, but more are needed. Because the bus fleet was acquired at the same time and is aging, she is applying for grants for replacements. A new bus costs $562,000, and an ADA bus costs twice that amount, she said.
Historically, VITRAN operates at a loss every year, only bringing in around $200,000, according to Gabriel. He said they are looking into smaller buses, especially considering the current cost of gas.
“VITRAN always operates at a loss. It takes subsidies to keep it afloat,” he said.
Even the Christiansted parking lot needs more staff because they are losing money on the weekends when parking is free, he said. The commissioner said there are plans to automate the parking lots eventually.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw asked if $500,000 is enough funding for DPW equipment and was the number actually $2.5 million. She asked for a list of needs and basically said if they don’t ask, the answer is “no.” Vialet added the department should resubmit its budget proposal.
Other senators commented on the 23 vacancies in the department, including engineers. Gabriel said engineer salaries are between $60,000 and $70,000 but should be higher to keep from losing staff to the private sector.
“Just like most other agencies, we have been creative in overcoming staff shortages,” Gabriel said.
Sens. Javan James and Samuel Carrion asked about street signs, road striping, and traffic control around road work. Gabriel said there is a new contractor on St. Thomas, and new contractors are being solicited for St. Croix to paint roads. He added that school crosswalks should be painted this summer.
“What takes so long to get a stop sign,” James asked and was told there shouldn’t be a delay since there is a supply of stop signs. The problem is communicating with the department, he said.
Carrion pointed out that when “things are out of place, it could cause problems,” specifically the lack of traffic cones and personnel monitoring vehicle movement.
People should call the department, Gabriel said, because contractors are responsible for monitoring traffic, and they could incur fines and even a stop-work order if there is a problem.
Attending the hearing were: Sens. Kurt Vialet, Samuel Carrion, Javan James, Janelle Sarauw, Marvin Blyden, Dwayne DeGraff, and non-committee member Sen. Kenneth Gittens.