ST. THOMAS — Gov. Albert Bryan Jr.’s financial team says eliminating vacant positions is helping reduce expenditures in the upcoming year.
V.I. lawmakers, however, are concerned a workforce reduction could impact contributions to the Government Employees’ Retirement System, which is already teetering on a 1-to-1 ratio between active members and retirees.
On Tuesday, the financial team appeared before the V.I. Senate Finance Committee, and stated that $817,855,144 in General Fund expenditures are projected in the upcoming fiscal year 2020 budget — as opposed to fiscal year 2019, which had $833,850,320.
V.I. Office of Management and Budget Director designee Jenifer O’Neal said the roughly $16 million decrease is largely due to a reduction in government vacancies, which, for years, has been a costly grind on the central government.
“We are doing things differently because we are different,” said O’Neal, in her testimony. “This budget is a step in the direction of righting long-standing perceived wrongs.”
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, however, questioned whether a reduction would impact GERS and its unfunded liability, especially when millions of dollars are being set aside for negotiated salary increases.
“What is the central government doing to address this 1-to-1 issue?” Frett-Gregory asked. “We can’t have salary increases and then begin to shrink positions because then we’re not growing our government and if we’re not going to grow our government, then we’re going to have an issue with GERS.”
Sen. Myron Jackson also expressed concern, insisting the financial team, while touting $3 million to pay outstanding employer obligations for retiring employees, did not have “any clear plan for addressing GERS’ unfunded liability.”
O’Neal replied that the governor plans to have a plan in place soon.
“There is a retreat scheduled by GERS that is upcoming within the next couple of weeks,” O’Neal said. “The governor will be attending with some of the members of the financial team to get a better understanding of all the issues that GERS is facing. At that point, the governor will further develop his plan and put it in place.”
O’Neal could not provide a number of positions zeroed out of each government agency.
The tentative budget shows that 792 vacant positions remain out of the 6,172 approved central government positions.
The fiscal year 2020 budget aims to transfer $4.2 million from the V.I. Health Department to the V.I. Fire Service in order to integrate Emergency Medical Service personnel.
According to the financial team, the placement of EMS personnel under the Fire Service will put them in more strategic and accessible locations across the territory.
Committee Chairman Kurt Vialet recommended that EMS personnel be in place and ready to function by Oct. 1, the start of fiscal year 2020.
He also recommended that Bryan immediately name members to the Coastal Zone Management Board, given that a number of permits for “significant investments” in the territory are going unresolved.
Vialet further advised the financial team to use more updated data and statistics for their budget, citing a list in the budget that names the territory’s top employers of 2015, including Caneel Bay Resort — which is closed.
“There’s no indication of the [recent] economic development on St. Croix and no indication that Limetree has over 3,000 employees on the ground now,” Vialet said.
“How can you really analyze a budget when you just have this old, outdated information that is showing top employers that are closed?”
Members of the financial team present Tuesday included O’Nealm Finance Department Commissioner designee Kirk Callwood, Bureau of Internal Revenue Director designee Joel Lee, Tax Assessor Ira Mills, Chief Negotiator designee Joss Springette, and Division of Personnel Director designee Dayna Clendinen.
Some highlights of the tentative budget include:
• The establishment of an application-required competitive grant process for not-for-profit organizations to compete for $6.7 million.
• Equal distribution of General Fund resources to Schneider Hospital on St. Thomas and Luis Hospital on St. Croix at $22 million per hospital.
• Contribution of minimum annual appropriation of $5 million to be placed in a Budget Stabilization Fund, also known as a “Rainy-Day Fund.”
• Removal of the Office of Collective Bargaining from the Division of Personnel’s umbrella, making it a single agency.
•The Department of Sports, Parks and Recreation received its full budget requested amount in order to accommodate critical positions and to better able to provide youth and recreation services to the community.