US Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority’s funding shortfalls leads to public health crisis risk

31 July 2019

The US Virgin Islands’ (USVI) Waste Management Authority (WMA) has a budget that doesn’t properly cover the costs of disposing solid waste, which leaves the territory at risk of a public health crisis, Adrian Wade Taylor, WMA Interim Executive Director testified yesterday (30 July) to the Senate Committee on Finance.

 

Governor Albert Bryan proposed a USD 31.4m budget for the authority for FY20 (begins 1 October 2019), a 17% reduction from its FY19 budget. The WMA’s actual budgetary requirements are about USD 60m, and the lower amount leaves the authority without the capital funding it needs to comply with federal consent decrees, said Wade Taylor, who called for funding increases over the next seven years.

 

“Not addressing the unfunded capital costs of the landfills, the shortfall in allotments, and the growing obligations, can result in the failure to properly dispose of municipal solid waste at the landfills,” Wade Taylor testified. “Failure to dispose of solid waste and treated wastewater will create a public health crisis.”

 

Some, but not all, of the needed capital expenditures will be covered through community development block grants, Wade Taylor said.

 

The 2017 Category 5 hurricanes that devastated the islands contributed to the capital needs, but the problems at the authority predated them. The authority does not have a needed USD 5m annual capital allotment for solid waste bale production at a St. Croix landfill, two landfills need about USD 90m to be closed under a court order and consent decree, appropriations from the sewage fund and wastewater user fees have been falling since FY13, and there hasn’t been political support to raise fees to pay for the shortfalls, Wade Taylor said.

 

“The outcry from [WMA] is we don’t have the funding to take care of the situations,” Wade Taylor said. “We need help.”

 

Efforts to raise needed money through bond measures have also failed, Wade Taylor said. A 2016 bill authorizing USD 30m wasn’t acted on, and the result is that costs associated with closing the landfill are rising.

 

“The financial condition of the authority requires immediate attention and relief to address its unfunded landfill closure costs, continued shortfall of the sewer wastewater fund and other key programs,” Wade Taylor told lawmakers, noting that the authority was behind in paying contractors and vendors about USD 24.6m.

 

Owing everyone, collecting nothing

 

Senator Kurt Vialet, chairman of the finance committee, said it was concerning that the budget was being reduced at a time when “we owe everybody money”.

 

Senator Novelle Francis went further, saying that anywhere else, contractors would just stop working until they were paid.

 

“That is a travesty, that could only happen in the Virgin Islands,” Francis said. “If this was Puerto Rico, there would be no access.”

 

Wade Taylor noted that there are no fees for trash pick up on the islands, which is unusual.

 

“This is the only place on the planet I’ve been where garbage is free,” Wade Taylor told senators.

 

Shortfalls in funding for enforcement have also left the WMA with less aggressive enforcement actions, resulting in a decrease in revenue from permits, Wade Taylor said.

 

Senator Donna Frett-Gregory said she was planning on introducing legislation to institute a new fee.

 

“This is a health crisis that we are about to embark on if we don’t address this issue,” Frett-Gregory said.

 

by Simone Baribeau