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Streamlining Unemployment Benefits: A Strategic Move by the V.I. Senate Committee

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The V.I. Department of Labor headquarters on St. Croix, a cornerstone for employment services in the territory. Courtesy of V.I. CONSORTIUM.

In a decisive step toward reforming unemployment insurance in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance has recently endorsed legislation aimed at refining the duration and oversight of unemployment benefits. This legislative initiative, sparked by Governor Albert Bryan Jr.’s vision and introduced by Senator Novelle Francis, is designed to align the unemployment insurance system more closely with the territory’s economic realities and workforce dynamics.

Under the proposed Bill 35-0218, the eligibility period for unemployment benefits will transition from 26 to 16 weeks. This modification reflects a data-driven approach to support those in transition between jobs more efficiently, without reducing the overall financial assistance available to individuals during their period of unemployment. Department of Labor Commissioner Gary Molloy emphasized that this change is not about diminishing support but about optimizing the delivery of benefits to ensure that recipients receive the assistance they need within a timeframe that better matches the job-seeking landscape in the territory.

The rationale behind this strategic adjustment stems from extensive analysis by the Virgin Islands Department of Labor (VIDOL), revealing a pattern where most beneficiaries return to employment within 16 to 18 weeks. This observation suggests that a shorter benefits period could encourage a more dynamic reintegration into the workforce, particularly during the fluctuating employment demands of the tourism sector.

Additionally, the legislation proposes an expansion in the statute of limitations for reclaiming overpayments from beneficiaries, from two years to five. This move is aimed at fortifying the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund’s integrity and financial health, with VIDOL’s Gary Molloy highlighting the importance of this measure in maintaining the fund’s solvency and trustworthiness.

Another significant aspect of Bill 35-0218 is the introduction of a payroll variation methodology, aligning the territory with federal standards and potentially affecting the tax liabilities of local businesses. This adjustment is viewed as a critical step toward stabilizing the unemployment insurance system, despite the anticipated adjustments for some employers. Molloy’s commitment to this policy underscores the administration’s proactive stance on ensuring a balanced and fair approach to funding unemployment insurance.

Further strengthening the system, the proposed legislation extends the window for collecting unemployment insurance contributions from employers from five to ten years, addressing loopholes that have allowed some businesses to evade their financial responsibilities. This extension, coupled with VIDOL’s plan to enhance engagement with the business community, represents a comprehensive strategy to improve the collection efficiency and financial stability of the Unemployment Insurance Program.

The bill also introduces measures to improve administrative efficiency, including a 10-year record retention requirement for employers and mandatory registration with the state information data exchange system. These provisions aim to streamline operations and enhance the program’s effectiveness.

The committee’s unanimous support for the bill, despite calls for further refinement, reflects a shared commitment to improving unemployment insurance in the U.S. Virgin Islands. With adjustments and ongoing dialogue, this legislation stands as a testament to Governor Bryan’s leadership and the territory’s dedication to creating a more resilient and responsive employment support system.

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Government

Governor Bryan Appoints Antonio Stevens as Director of Virgin Islands Fire & Emergency Services

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Governor Albert Bryan has officially named Antonio Stevens as the new director of the Virgin Islands Fire & Emergency Medical Services (VIFEMS), marking a pivotal transition nearly four months after the agency mourned the loss of Daryl George, its esteemed inaugural director.

Governor Bryan lauded Mr. Stevens as “an exemplary figure whose vast contributions span both military and civilian emergency management realms.”

Mr. Stevens embarked on his journey with the Virgin Islands Fire Service in 2006, following an illustrious military career. Under the mentorship of Daryl George, he ascended to the role of assistant director, showcasing his leadership skills and deep commitment to the community’s safety.

In the wake of Mr. George’s departure, Mr. Stevens was appointed acting director, a role he fulfilled with distinction until his formal installation into office this week.

Governor Bryan praised Mr. Stevens for his leadership qualities, expertise, and unwavering dedication, declaring him “the perfect leader to guide the Virgin Islands Fire and Emergency Medical Services forward.”

Expressing his gratitude, Mr. Stevens acknowledged the governor and his deputy for their trust, as well as the unwavering support of the VIFEMS team. “I am grateful for the team that stands with me. Together, we will move towards a promising future,” he stated, signaling a new chapter for the agency under his direction.

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VI Lawmakers Call for Stronger Recruitment to Overcome Enforcement Officer Gap

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During a recent Senate hearing focused on the operations of various government agencies, Senator Kenneth Gittens took a firm stance on addressing the critical shortage of enforcement officers within the territory. As the chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, Gittens emphasized the need for enhanced recruitment efforts to ensure agencies are adequately staffed to meet their regulatory responsibilities.

Highlighting the urgency of the situation, Gittens pointed out the concerning staffing levels across several departments, urging agency leaders to prioritize hiring in their budget plans for the forthcoming fiscal year. He specifically addressed the Taxicab Commission, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (DPNR), the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs (DLCA), and the Department of Health (DOH), stating, “For the next budget cycle, we expect to see requests so that we can hire people.”

Discussions during the committee meeting revealed a common challenge among the agencies: severe understaffing that hampers their ability to enforce regulations effectively. For instance, the DOH’s Environmental Health Division, tasked with overseeing around 6,000 establishments, operates with just three enforcement officers, though efforts are underway to double this number. Yet, the division’s director, Wanson Harris, indicated that twelve officers would be the optimal number to fulfill their mandate effectively.

Similarly, the DLCA, with seven enforcement officers spread across two districts for monitoring over 12,000 businesses, finds itself significantly understaffed. Wilbur Francis, Director of Enforcement at DLCA, expressed a need for an additional seven officers to meet their operational needs adequately.

Senator Franklin Johnson underscored the economic implications of these staffing shortages, particularly in revenue-generating agencies like the DLCA, where insufficient personnel leads to missed opportunities for income collection.

Gittens also highlighted the critical role of Neighborhood Nuisance Officers within the DOH, advocating for the expansion of this team to address widespread issues such as abandoned vehicles and mosquito breeding in neglected pools. Currently, a solitary officer manages these concerns across the entire territory.

The DPNR and the Taxicab Commission (TCC) also face similar challenges. The DPNR operates with eleven enforcement officers, yet identifies a need for ten officers per district to improve efficiency. The TCC, meanwhile, grapples with a notable absence of enforcement officers in the St. Croix district and limited capacity in the St. Thomas/St. John district, severely restricting its enforcement capabilities.

Despite these challenges, there is a glimmer of hope as agencies like the TCC plan to bolster their ranks in the near future. Nevertheless, the current enforcement officer deficit underscores a broader issue of resource allocation and the imperative for strategic hiring to ensure the effective enforcement of the territory’s laws and regulations. With budget hearings on the horizon in June, lawmakers appear poised to support initiatives that will strengthen the enforcement workforce across the territory’s 22 agencies, demonstrating a commitment to upholding public safety and regulatory compliance.

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Dispute Escalates as WMA’s Appeal for Reduced Assessment Rejected by PSC

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The recent meeting of the Public Services Commission (PSC) marked a pivotal moment in the ongoing dispute between the PSC and the Waste Management Authority (WMA), potentially paving the way for a legal showdown. The WMA’s request to re-evaluate its substantial annual assessment was firmly rejected, highlighting a critical disagreement over financial assessments and obligations.

Florence Kahugu, the WMA’s lead legal advisor, challenged the PSC’s assessment methodology, arguing for a significant reduction in the annual fee. According to Kahugu, funds received from the central government, designated for specific uses, were improperly included in the WMA’s operational revenue calculation, suggesting the assessment should be adjusted from the initial figure of over $400,000 to a mere $14,000.

Darryl Griffith, the WMA’s finance chief, contested the PSC’s revenue calculations for 2022, pointing out a stark contrast between the PSC’s $53.7 million figure and the $1.3 million reported by their auditors. Griffith emphasized that government appropriations, although utilized for operational expenses, do not constitute operating revenue, which he defined as earnings from the entity’s primary activities.

This contention over the definition of “gross operating revenue” became the crux of the disagreement. Despite pushback from the PSC, Griffith and Kahugu stood firm on their interpretation, backed by the consistent clearance of WMA’s financial audits by Bert Smith & Co, a reputable auditing firm also engaged by the Government of the Virgin Islands.

Highlighting the WMA’s reliance on government funding, Louis Sylvester, the deputy executive director, disclosed that 95% of the agency’s income stems from legislative appropriations. He pointed out the absence of charges for waste disposal services to the government, a practice underpinned by the WMA’s semi-autonomous status and the legislative support it enjoys. Sylvester recounted a failed attempt to introduce a charge for waste disposal, which was met with strong opposition from the community, leading to its withdrawal and the continuation of government subsidies.

The PSC, however, maintained its stance, referencing the agency’s acceptance of assessments from 2007 to 2021 without contention and highlighting the lack of initiative from the WMA to achieve financial independence. The PSC’s recommendation to deny the WMA’s petition for reassessment and to proceed with a comprehensive rate investigation reflects the commission’s position on the matter.

Kahugu signaled the WMA’s intention to challenge the decision in the Superior Court if their petition was denied, a move that would require the WMA to cover all legal expenses, including those incurred by the PSC.

In a unanimous decision, the commissioners denied the WMA’s appeal and initiated plans for an in-depth investigation into the agency’s financial operations, setting the stage for further developments in this contentious issue.

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