VIHFA Seeks Public Input on Plan to Protect V.I. from Disaster

In this June file photo, VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith testifies before a Senate committee. (Barry Leerdam, V.I. Legislature)

The Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority needs the public’s input on a wide-ranging $774 million plan to harden the territory against disasters.

The money, in the form of Community Development Block Grant – Mitigation funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be used to improve critical infrastructure across the territory, VIHFA Executive Director Daryl Griffith told the Authority’s board at its meeting on Monday via Zoom.

The endeavor is separate from the more than $1 billion in CDBG – Disaster Recovery funding the territory has received following the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017.

The 241-page CDBG-MIT Action Plan, as it is known, specifically addresses how to make the U.S. Virgin Islands more resilient against future threats, including addressing unmet needs in the following categories: Infrastructure and public facilities; economic resilience and revitalization; housing; public services; and planning.

Before the plan can be sent to HUD for approval, it needs to be vetted by the public, Griffith said.

Public hearings to discuss the proposed programs and activities funded by CDBG-MIT money are scheduled for 6 p.m., Nov. 12 and Nov. 19, via Zoom.

To join the CDBG-MIT Action Plan public hearings on Nov. 12 or Nov. 19 on Zoom, use your browser and the Zoom application to open the meeting site here.
The meeting ID is 337 636 3442
The passcode is CDBGMIT

For one-tap mobile call:
+16699006833,3376363442# US (San Jose)
+19292056099,3376363442# US (New York)

The public comment period is open until Dec. 22 and input also can be emailed to [email protected]ov.

The plan is available online at the VIFHA website.

Mitigation Activities
Unlike disaster recovery, mitigation activities do not have to have a tie to the 2017 hurricanes and the timeline for the expenditure of funds is 12 years from the date the grant agreement is signed, according to the VIHFA.

Consulting and engineering firm Tetra Tech is helping the territory through the planning and HUD approval process, and on Monday the VIHFA board unanimously approved an extension to its contract, due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the total amount not to exceed $1.4 million.

The board also unanimously approved a request by VIHFA to reprogram $864,971 in CDBG funds that have not been used or are left over from other projects.

“The territory’s performance is impacted by each project which carries an unexpended balance,” Chief Financial Officer Valdez Shelford said in a slide presentation to the board. “HUD’s expectation is that the territory will take remedial action to address this issue by de-obligating funds from inactive projects in favor of reallocating those funds to projects which can expend the funds expeditiously.”

One of the projects, $102,086 for a sewer line replacement for the Caribbean Center for Boys and Girls in Christiansted, was funded in 2015. Others, such as $6,857 for the Women with Focus After-School Program on St. Croix and $120,000 for the Methodist Training and Outreach Center Transitional Housing on St. Thomas, were granted money in 2017 but had their plans derailed by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

The largest grant – $381,000 in 2019 – was to go for the reconstruction of the St. John Community Center in Cruz Bay that was damaged in the storms. However, work has been delayed “due to the protracted project approval process attributed to the involvement of FEMA as a funding source,” according to Shelford. Once the project achieves “shovel readiness,” it will be considered in a future grant year, she said.

In other business on Monday, the board unanimously approved a one-year lease renewal for VIHFA office space at the Government Employees’ Retirement System building on St. Thomas at a cost of $69,720, with renewal options after one year not to exceed 3 percent of the current rent. At 1,192 square feet of space, the cost is about $35 per square foot, said Griffith.

Board member and DPNR Commissioner Jean-Pierre Oriol asked whether the Authority could get a better deal by renting space in one of the buildings the Property and Procurement Department has in downtown St. Thomas.

“My biggest fear is air quality,” said Griffith, though he said his staff will explore the options, including getting a waiver from HUD to be able to purchase a building, as staff will be growing to complete the many CDBG-DR and CDBG-MIT programs and projects.

“It’s madness to me” to be spending more than $500,000 a year on rent for the Authority’s various office spaces, Griffith said.

The board also voted unanimously on Monday to award Grade-All Heavy Equipment Inc. a contract worth $478,692 for the demolition of the Queen Louise apartments on St. Thomas, comprising 15 units and several outbuildings, Griffith said.

While board Chairwoman Jenifer O’Neal, director of the Office of Management and Budget, voiced concerns that Grade-All seems to be the company of choice when it comes to government projects – it also was selected for work at the VIHFA’s new Wild Pineapple subdivision in Estate Fortuna, for example – “they do prove that they have the capacity … and they do really good work.”

Grade-All was chosen after the lowest bidder in response to the Request for Proposal proved unable to handle the job after four meetings and many more phone calls, Griffith. said.

“They simply didn’t understand how they were going to take the structure down,” he said and had already submitted a change order for $150,000.

“We did not disburse any funds to them,” Griffith added.

Also unanimously approved at Monday’s meeting was the purchase of a new 125-kilowatt Perkins diesel generator for VIHFA offices in Frenchtown at a cost of $103,395. The contract was awarded to Import Supply, with a timeframe of 150 days for installation.

“Why does it take so long?” asked St. John board member Carmen Wesselhoft-Hendrington, coordinator of the Cooperative Extension Service’s 4-H Youth Development Program at the University of the Virgin Islands and senator-at-large in the 27th Legislature.

O’Neal, who was in charge of a similar purchase for OMB, said such large generators don’t just come off the shelf, they are built to specification on the mainland and then must be shipped to the territory, all of which takes time.

The full board – O’Neal, Oriol and Wesselhoft-Hendrington – attended Monday’s meeting.