US Virgin Islands officials angered after federal government delays funds due to Puerto Rico crisis

by | Sep 19, 2019 | United States Virgin Islands | Comments

It has been roughly 2 years since Hurricane Marie struck the islands of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, yet both continue to haggle and fight with the federal government over the much-needed federal relief aid funds to assist in their recoveries. 

At the end of July, President Donald Trump announced he would delay over $8 billion in funds destined for Puerto Rico over worries of misuse, and roughly $770 million in funds destined for the US Virgin Islands due to capacity issues.

“Recovery efforts in jurisdictions prepared to do their part should not be held back due to alleged corruption, fiscal irregularities and financial mismanagement occurring in Puerto Rico and capacity issues in the US Virgin Islands, which is why [the Department. of Housing and Urban Development] will award disaster mitigation funds in two separate tranches,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson in a news release.

The United States Federal Government has decided to split the aid packages into two groups. The first, for the nine US states needing aid, which is being disbursed, and the other for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, which will now be delayed. Lumping the US Virgin Islands together with Puerto Rico, and divided from the other US states has upset the territory’s Governor, Albert Bryan Jr. (D).

“While I understand the concern for heightened scrutiny given the recent developments in Puerto Rico, there have been no improprieties in the Virgin Islands’ disaster recovery process and no discernible reason to couple the US Virgin Islands with Puerto Rico in this matter. We are not Puerto Rico,” Bryan said.

Concerning the United States’s trepidations over capacity issues, it boils down to the territory actually not being able to spend the money they have already received, quickly enough. 

Because of the islands’ size and remote distance from the mainland, it has failed to adequately distribute and control the disbursement of aid to subcontractors and sub-subcontractors. Either hiring too many, or not coordinating well enough what each should be doing. 

However, Governor Bryan has countered that criticism, stating the islands have drastically revamped their Department. of Disaster Relief, and can now accommodate more relief funds at any time. 

“We have been successful in drawing down the $242 million in tranche one and received approval of our action plan for the drawdown of the $779 million in tranche two. In fact, we are awaiting HUD’s preparation of the grant agreement to access those funds,” he said.

The islands’ Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett (D) has also issued her own statement on the matter, stating that she had worked to include language in the Disaster Relief Act of 2019 that will require Congress to force HUD to issue guidelines for disbursement for all the disaster relief areas, states and territories included, by September 4. 

She did, however, acknowledge that the territory continues to build up its staff and bulk up its Disaster Relief Agency, so as to better manage the funds that should, or will eventually, be coming their way. 

“Government agencies in the Virgin Islands will be tasked with handling hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds, an unprecedented task that will challenge the government’s very capacity to process such a large amount of funding. The increase in funding will be hundreds of times what is normally handled, and a sufficient number of staff will be needed to properly monitor and evaluate grant applications while keeping pace with the administrative requirements to properly expend these much needed funds,” she said.

The sad reality for the US Virgin Islands, as so often occurs, is it seems to have been lumped together with its fellow territory for political expediency.