Preparedness & Recovery

Budget Bill Contains Disaster Funding Measures

Housing and Urban Development Fund received $28 billion for all federally declared disasters in 2017.

by Brian O'Connor, The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas / February 12, 2018
A motorist on Highway 101 watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif. President Donald Trump has declared a major disaster in California over a wildfire that destroyed more than 1,000 buildings. The White House announced Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018, that the president has granted disaster status, which will help make federal funds available to supplement recovery efforts in the wake of the Thomas fire that ravaged Santa Barbara and Ventura counties. AP/Noah Berger

(TNS) — The congressional budget bill that was passed early Friday morning by lawmakers in Washington, D.C., comes with much-needed relief funding for the territory, Gov. Kenneth Mapp said at a Friday press conference.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 — passed about 6:30 a.m. Friday in the U.S. House of Representatives following a delayed vote in the Senate, and signed by President Donald Trump — ended a government shutdown that began at midnight.

It also allocated billions of dollars in recovery funds to territories and states impacted by the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season.

Specifically, the Housing and Urban Development Fund received $28 billion for all federally declared disasters in 2017, according to the language of the bill. Of that amount, $11 billion is set aside for “States and units of local government affected by Hurricane Maria.”

Within that amount, $2 billion is specifically set aside for enhanced or improved electrical power systems, according to the bill.

The overall amount is intended for “disaster relief, long-term recovery, restoration of infrastructure and housing, economic revitalization, and mitigation in the most impacted and distressed areas resulting from a major declared disaster that occurred in 2017,” according to the bill.

Funding for the electrical system was a good thing, Mapp said. The block grants don’t have to be repaid, and even if the Virgin Islands received 10 percent of the bill, it would amount to up to $400 million for WAPA, Mapp said.

“I am delighted that this bill provides funding for mitigation,” he said. “It means that we are now at a real point where power lines will be going underground, smaller and more efficient generation systems will be purchased at the Water and Power Authority, where renewable energy sources such as wind and additional solar systems will be installed in the power generations to reduce the cost of electricity in the territory.”

Burying power lines is expected to take up to five years to complete, Mapp said, given the amount of work required, including obtaining rights of way for corridors for the lines and other processes.

Changes in the bill also could mean $250 million in low-interest disaster loans, Mapp said.

A section of the bill also increases the federal medical assistance percentage rate to 100 percent.

There also is $106.9 million in additional funding for Medicaid between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 2019, according to the bill. An additional $35.6 million is available if the territory implements what’s called a “Transformed Medicaid Statistical Information System.”

The system is an upgrade to a new data management system that reports information — claims, patient eligibility and other data — to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for analysis. Another requirement for the additional $35 million would be for the territory to “demonstrate progress in a State Medicaid fraud control unit,” according to the bill.

Both extra conditions apply to Puerto Rico as well, according to the bill.

The bill also grants changes sought by territorial officials related to the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. The change affects only Puerto Rico and the territory, and only for hurricanes Irma and Maria, according to the bill.

Whether that could mean new hospitals for the Virgin Islands, Mapp didn’t say.

“I won’t announce today what that means in terms of the hospitals, but it is clear that repairs to both of the hospitals is no longer an option in the Virgin Islands,” he said. “We will continue to do the assessments, but the plan is to rebuild three new hospital systems in the Virgin Islands.”

The change means federal funds also could be used to replace destroyed schools — like E. Benjamin Oliver Elementary on St. Thomas and Eulalie Rivera Elementary on St. Croix — as well as refurbish and repair schools partially damaged by the storms, Mapp said.

Mapp said if all the aid — including the Community Disaster Development loan — were added up, the federal response exceeded the need, using an aid figure he frequently cited in past press conferences.

“We are calculating that the benefit to the U.S. Virgin Islands will exceed $7.5 billion,” he said.

— Contact Brian O’Connor at 340-714-9130 or email boconnor@dailynews.vi.

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©2018 The Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas, VIR)

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