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Drones: Beyond Hurricane Preparedness to Law Enforcement? Senator Pitches New Idea



In a recent deliberation at the Senate Committee focusing on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, Senator Franklin Johnson broached the idea that the V.I. Police Department (VIPD) could broaden their drone utilization beyond hurricane readiness and management. Specifically, he underscored that unmanned aerial systems might be the key to addressing traffic violations, emphasizing issues concerning motorcyclists flouting helmet regulations or riding without licenses.

This innovative proposal was voiced shortly after the police chief of St. Croix district, Sean Santos, enlightened the committee on the upgraded capabilities the VIPD now possesses for hurricane management. For the first time in its operational history, the department can now call upon drones as part of its toolkit.

Elaborating on the advanced drones’ functionalities, Chief Santos noted their critical role in search and rescue missions, damage assessment via aerial surveys, and crucially, in aiding crowd control and escorting to points of distribution during emergent situations.

Responding to inquiries regarding the drones’ exact deployment strategies post-hurricanes, Chief Santos detailed their pivotal role in assessing damage scales, assisting road clearance initiatives, and overall enhancement of search and rescue missions.

However, the discussion took an intriguing turn when Senator Johnson probed the potential of drones in managing traffic-related infringements. Though Chief Santos didn’t explicitly agree with Senator Johnson’s proposition, he hinted at the versatility of these aerial devices, remarking, “We anticipate deploying them across varied missions.”

Senator Johnson, persistent in his vision, revisited the drone discussion, stressing their potential efficacy. “There’s consistent chatter about the challenges in pursuing motorcyclists breaching safety norms, such as riding without helmets or lacking proper licenses. Drones could provide the much-needed evidence for legal proceedings,” he asserted before shifting the discussion to other pertinent topics.

Incorporating drone technology in law enforcement could be a game-changer for the V.I. region. While the debate over their application continues, the possibilities they present seem expansive and promising.

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St. Thomas Anticipates Economic Revival as Lawmakers Approve Key Property Leases



The 35th Legislature of St. Thomas is setting the stage for an economic upswing as it greenlights leases for three significant local businesses. This week, the Committee on Budget, Finance and Appropriation, along with the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, approved property leases for Dave’s Trucking Services, Moe’s Fresh Market, and Petrus Properties LLC.

Vincent Richards, from the Department of Property and Procurement, joined forces with representatives from each of the three businesses to outline the specifics of the leases. Dave Jeffers, owner of Dave’s Trucking Services, revealed plans to construct office spaces for his trucking enterprise at an estimated budget of $80,000. The Legislature had previously approved a different property lease for him in 2019, which was later abandoned due to safety risks. Jeffers expressed concerns about potential ground collapse due to underground tanks, stating, “The safety of my employees and the community is paramount.”

In another significant move, the Legislature approved a lease for over 27,000 square feet of land in Estate Nisky for Moe’s Fresh Market. Wally Hamed, president of Demah Inc., the parent company of Moe’s Fresh Market, pledged an investment of over $7 million in the project. “We aim to create at least 50 jobs during the construction phase and sustain 60 permanent positions once operational,” Hamed said. Vincent Richards added that the property’s strategic location at the entrance of the sub-base area would act as a catalyst for its rehabilitation.

Petrus Properties LLC also secured a lease for waterfront property in St. Thomas. The company plans to construct a two-story commercial building, adding to their existing well-maintained property, which Richards described as the “gold standard.” Kiana Petrus-Abraham, the director of operations at Petrus Properties, emphasized the company’s commitment to local businesses, stating, “Petrus Plaza has consistently retained its tenants since its inception.” The new project is expected to require an investment of approximately $1.5 million.

The legislative members expressed unanimous support for all three leases. Sen. Diane Capehart remarked, “It’s impossible to say no to businesses that have positively impacted our community and are looking to grow.” Sen. Javan James Sr. labeled the proposals as “obvious choices.”

With the initial legislative approvals in place, the leases are set for further consideration in an upcoming full Senate session. Additionally, a fourth lease aimed at establishing a permanent headquarters for St. Thomas Rescue is under review, pending amendments to make it more favorable for the volunteer organization.

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Unspent Federal Grants Stall Progress in Early Childhood Development in St. Croix



In the wake of ongoing protests by educators over work conditions in St. Croix’s public schools, the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development gathered last Thursday to tackle broader challenges in child care across the territory. The meeting, chaired by Senator Marise James, aimed to address not only the protests but also the hurdles faced by organizations such as Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands (LSS) and the V.I. Department of Human Services (DHS) in enhancing child care services. This discussion comes at a time when $16 million in federal funds remains untouched.

While Senator James refrained from delving into specifics, she acknowledged that both the Education Commissioner and the District Education Superintendent had addressed the concerns raised by the St. Croix AFT, a teachers’ union.

The primary focus of the hearing was early childhood development. Representatives from LSS, DHS, and other agencies outlined their initiatives and obstacles in fostering the social, cognitive, and academic growth of the territory’s youngest residents. LSS, which provides “Early Head Start” programs for children up to three years old, faces financial constraints that make it difficult to meet federal matching requirements for grants. Junia John-Straker, CEO of LSS, highlighted the organization’s struggle to offer competitive salaries, making it challenging to attract and retain staff.

Similarly, DHS Assistant Commissioner Carla Benjamin revealed that her department, responsible for administering the Head Start program, faces comparable issues. Despite these challenges, both organizations are committed to serving the territory’s children. LSS currently accommodates 120 families, while the Head Start program has nearly 800 students enrolled. However, resource limitations hinder the expansion of these services.

The scarcity of resources has also impeded the program’s expansion from St. Croix to St. Thomas. Renting suitable space on St. Thomas has proven to be cost-prohibitive, according to Ms. John-Straker. Senator Carla Joseph suggested exploring partnerships with other organizations willing to share space.

In a positive development, Carla Benjamin disclosed that a new facility for St. Johnian Head Start students is under construction, replacing the one destroyed by hurricanes in 2017. Additionally, policy changes now make essential workers “categorically eligible” for childcare subsidies, irrespective of their income levels. Senator Joseph praised this as a significant achievement, emphasizing the importance of safe childcare for essential workers.

The hearing also touched upon the slow disbursement of federal grants aimed at upgrading private childcare services. Of the $23 million allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act for local childcare providers, only $7 million has been utilized. Senator Marise James urged childcare providers to apply for the remaining $16 million in grants to improve their facilities.

Senator Donna Frett-Gregory expressed concern over the lack of comprehensive data collection for young residents, hindering policy formulation. Dr. Charmaine Myers, Maternal Child Health director at the V.I. Department of Health, noted that a screening program for children up to eight years old has been operational since 2021, with plans to extend it to those up to 21 years old.

The session concluded with expressions of gratitude from testifiers and a commitment from lawmakers to support the enhancement and expansion of early childhood programs in the territory.

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St. Thomas Rescue Lease Undergoes Senate Review for More Favorable Terms



The Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance gathered this past Tuesday to reconsider the leasing terms for St. Thomas Rescue Inc. (STR Inc.), a volunteer-based emergency response organization. The primary objective was to negotiate a more advantageous lease for the group’s future headquarters and training center.

The facility under discussion is a single-story structure located in Sub Base Number 6, South Side Quarter, St. Thomas. It is envisioned as the long-term base of operations for STR Inc., which has been a vital part of the community’s emergency services.

Senator Novelle Francis expressed reservations about the initial lease terms, particularly the annual cost. “The invaluable service that St. Thomas Rescue provides to our community has not only been exceptional but has also saved the government a significant amount of money over the years,” Francis noted. He suggested that the current annual rate of $1,200 was steep and proposed a nominal $1 per year as a more fitting amount.

This perspective was echoed by Senator Dwayne DeGraff, who was even more forthright. “The existing contract for the Rescue? Shred it,” DeGraff declared. He emphasized that the current lease agreement, especially the clause requiring extensive renovations, was far from ideal.

Further complicating matters, Liston Thomas, the President of STR Inc., revealed a new challenge. The funding that had initially been secured for the necessary building improvements had fallen through. This new development added urgency to the call for revising the lease terms.

Vincent Richards, the Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Property and Procurement, acknowledged the senators’ concerns and the organization’s dilemma. “This is my first time hearing that their earlier funding has dried up,” Richards confessed. He pledged his department’s commitment to resolving the issue, stating, “We are proud to have assisted them in finding a suitable location, and we will take all necessary steps to modify the lease so it benefits them.”

While the meeting also covered other government property leases, the depth of the conversation about STR Inc. led to a decision to hold back Bill 35-0077. This bill, which concerns multiple leases, will be delayed to allow for the Department of Property and Procurement to make the essential amendments.

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