Angry members of the Finance Committee complained Tuesday that they were not consulted about the recently signed memorandum of understanding between the V.I. Government and the Department of the Interior. Delegate to Congress Donna Christian-Christensen came in for harsh criticsm for her perceived role in the agreement.
The mandated revision of Act 4440 was also strongly criticized.
Finance Committee chairwoman Sen. Lorraine Berry had requested both Christian-Christensen and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt to attend the meeting, though neither did so.
In a letter to Berry, Christiansen said she had been briefed on the agreement, but had no authority with respect to drafting it and no part in the negotiations, and was therefore declining the invitation to attend.
Ferdinand "Danny" Aranza, director of the Office of Insular Affairs, wrote that Secretary Babbitt thought it more appropriate that Gov. Charles Turnbull be the one to address any questions the committee might have, since the memorandum's provisions "have a direct correlation to the fiscal year budget submitted by Gov. Turnbull."
Sens. Adelbert "Bert" Bryan and Alicia "Chucky" Hansen both attacked Christian-Christensen, saying the congresswoman was evading her duties and accusing her of not being honest about her knowledge of the memorandum. Berry, too, took exception to the letter.
"All of this could have been avoided," said Beryy, "if the Legislature had been advised of the role it would play in the memorandum."
Turnbull sent Rudolph Krigger, his special assistant in financial matters, to the meeting. Krigger characterized the plan as an "executive branch agreement between the government of the Virgin Islands and the federal government which establishes certain standards of financial performance and accountability as a condition of receiving federal financial and technical assistance."
He said the agreement "does not establish a 'federal control board,' or contravene the constituent powers of the VI government, including those of the legislature."
Bryan then brought the proceedings to a halt by demanding from Krigger a list of all the government employees currently, "as of today," being laid off. Krigger said he would have to get that from Government House.
He was given until 3:30 p.m. to produce the list. Bryan then demanded the presence of Bernice Turnbull, commissioner of Finance, and Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who appeared after a recess was called.
Along with revisions to Act 4440 to bring it into accordance with federal labor relations laws, the memorandum also mandates:
– Receipt of a copy of the governor's five-year financial recovery plan within 90 days of signature of the agreement. (The governor signed the agreement on Oct. 5 and Babbitt on Oct. 7.)
– A 50 percent cut in overtime expenditures from fiscal year 1999.
– A hiring freeze with limited and "highly scrutinized" exceptions.
– A 5 percent reduction in payroll costs from fiscal year 1999 baseline costs.
– An additional 20 percent cut in overall expenditures.
– A 50-50 cost-sharing of retirement and health insurance premiums.
– The elimination of five holidays.
The memorandum also has a provision for training all "key managers" in the administration of federal grants.
Sen. V. Anne Golden addressed a provision in the plan dealing with the "Enhancement of Natural Resources." Secretary Babbitt, said Golden, "is a staunch conservationist. He envisions federal protection of coral reefs, but not one thing to protect our people."
Krigger was not clear on how the natural resources provision was to be handled. Quoting from the agreement, he said, "Babbitt and Gov. Turnbull are committed to a program of preservation and enhancement of V.I. resources to help simulate economic growth through sustainable tourism. The agreement will establish a conservation trust similar to one existing in Puerto Rico."
Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole called the agreement "going back to slavery," saying it showed no respect for Virgin Islands history. "It's an attempt to subvert the power of this legislature," he said.
Sen. Roosevelt David disagreed. "I don't see it as adversarial," he said. "It's the federal government trying to assist. We should get on board and help."
Addressing Krigger, David asked, "Did it occur to you that if the legislature had been consulted we could have had a better document?"
Krigger replied that "hindsight is always 20/20."
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said the government "doesn't need new loans to pay tax refunds." He suggested that the money appropriated and not used for Y2K, which has now been supplemented by a $16 million federal grant, be used to pay income tax refunds, which would "circulate millions of dollars into the economy."
In a teleconference Tuesday afternoon, Aranza made it clear that federal officials expect compliance with the memorandum if local officials want money for capital projects and other federal aid and concessions.


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