The Department of Public Works will collaborate with the Bureau of Corrections to have inmates supplement existing roadside maintenance crews on St. Croix, Public Works Commissioner Nelson Petty Jr. told the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday.
After finalizing a memorandum of understanding, the partnership should be complete within the next 60 days, Petty said.
The memorandum of understanding couldn’t come fast enough for Sen. Dwayne DeGraff.
“The roadsides throughout this territory are deplorable,” DeGraff said. “We who live here suffer the fate of poor maintenance of our roadsides.”
Presenting the DPW budget to the committee Tuesday, Petty said, “During these difficult times, we continue to address our mandates while finding new and creative ways to do so.”
The task of maintaining brush and removing litter, and from setbacks along the 500 miles of roadway on St. Croix, will become part of the responsibilities given to select inmates. The job costs the department an average of $5 million a year in roadside contractors, Petty said.
Currently, roadside maintenance crews are contracted as needed for gut cleaning, brush clearing and wayside debris removal. But Sen. Athneil Thomas, who attended the hearing as a non-committee member, said contracts shouldn’t be given per job but instead paid to maintain a designated area. Then the department wouldn’t see four-foot trees grow back where they are unwanted.
Though inmates would be used to maintain St. Croix roadways, they will not help on the 300 miles of roadways on St. Thomas and St. John because of a “loophole” that Petty said prevents the department from doing so.
“Here on St. Thomas we do not have a prison. So those guys could not for any length of time be doing that work. Because they’re detainees, they can’t assist on the District of St. Thomas/St. John. But in St. Croix we have the memorandum of understanding,” Petty said.
Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., another nonmember, called Public Work’s proposed budget “a recipe for disaster” because it was cut $3.5 million, from $21.5 million in the current fiscal year to $18 million for FY 2021.
“We need to find some assistance for you, whether it be the inmates or prisoners, and create some alternatives with the court so that rather individuals be sent to jail perhaps they can come clean the streets or some other work. Because with this budget, I don’t think it will happen.”
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said it was high time inmates be used for roadside maintenance and pointed out programs had existed in previous years that utilized inmates, but for whatever reason, the programs dissipated.
“We continue to talk about the fact that we are challenged for funding and our ability to repair our roads, but we aren’t utilizing our inmates. When you travel from state to state you see in fact where inmates are on the roads supporting their communities,” Frett-Gregory said.
Should the memorandum of understanding be finalized, Petty said it would only be a few months before the program could begin and inmates would start supplementing the roadside maintenance crews on St. Croix.
All committee members – Sens. Kurt Vialet, Janelle Sarauw, Marvin Blyden, Oakland Benta, Allison DeGazon, DeGraff, and Frett-Gregory – were present for the finance hearing.