The V.I. Justice Department will expand its footprint at Nisky Center on St. Thomas, paying $31,000 more in rent despite a looming budget cut, chronic personnel shortages and a scuttled white-collar crime unit.
The department, which faces a $1.2 million budget cut in fiscal year 2021 and a massive $767,984 cut in personnel services, will gain just 990 square feet in the expansion — at an additional cost of $30,738 a year.
Lawmakers at a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing voiced confusion over the decision, and questioned why the department — and the governor’s recommended budget — seemed to value office space more than ensuring critical divisions were staffed.
Indeed, V.I. Attorney General Denise George testified that staffing for her Paternity and Child Support Division was “woefully inadequate,” with just four active case administrators managing 8,600 child support cases territorywide.
Additionally, plans to restart the department’s White-Collar Crime and Public Corruption Division, which were heavily touted by George, have been put off indefinitely.
“I don’t understand the rationale,” said Senate Finance Chairman Kurt Vialet to George. “I would have hoped you would have been able to convince the Executive Branch to include those numbers in the budget that was sent down.”
Vialet called the expansion at Nisky Center “strange.”
Currently, the Justice Department rents 10,448 square feet of space at Nisky Center to house its Paternity and Child Support Division administrative services. The annual rent is $229,856 — 66% of which is federally funded, making the local match $78,151.
On Oct. 1, the department will enter into a five-year lease with St. Thomas Properties LLC Corp., a principal owner of Nisky Center, with an annual rent of $320,264, or a local match of $108,889.
Justice officials said the additional 990 square feet will house the division’s hearing officer, who can’t be co-located with the administrative services. The expansion will also include features like a common area and security cameras.
While George insisted that funding for other areas had been cut due to the “perilous financial times” of COVID-19, lawmakers were skeptical, given that staffing for the Paternity and Child Support Division is also funded with a 66% federal match.
“You can’t bring employees on because you can’t find the 34% but then you can find the 34% to expand space?” asked Vialet.
Lawmakers further questioned why the department’s budget showed a $246,514 increase for “supplies” and a $1.2 million increase for “other services and charges,” while personnel services were cut so drastically. “These categories should be flipped,” Vialet said. “You can’t increase all other areas and then come and say I need additional monies. The government needs to be frugal. We can’t just be spending money like we just have this wash pan full of money.”
In a later interview with The Daily News, Vialet voiced his concern over an alarming number of government offices migrating to Nisky Center, a center partially owned by former V.I. Gov. John de Jongh Jr. and St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce President Sebastiano Paiewonsky Cassinelli.
The largest of these offices, the Office of Lt. Gov. Tregenza Roach, pays nearly $700,000 in annual rent, while the V.I. Economic Development Authority and the V.I. Law Enforcement Planning Commission pay $209,469 and $56,484 in annual rent, respectively.
Vialet said there are more offices, which collectively provide Nisky Center close to $1.5 million annually.
All of them rent their office space from St. Thomas Properties LLC Corp. Trademark documents obtained by The Daily News show that former Gov. de Jongh and Cassinelli are two of the company’s managing partners, along with Leigh Goldman and Hold STP LLC, which is managed by Bradley Wilson of Smith Bay, St. Thomas.
Both de Jongh and Cassinelli — as well as St. Thomas Properties LLC — are also listed as principals of Nisky Center itself.