A threatened federal takeover of the territory's Occupational Safety and Health Administration program, run by the Labor Department, was averted Tuesday as the Senate, meeting in special session, passed a bill appropriating the necessary funding to keep it local managed.
The special session was requested by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to come up with the necessary funding.
In a letter to Senate president Vargrave Richards, Turnbull proposed amendments to appropriate $748,428 from the Caribbean Basin Initiative Fund to the OSHA program for the current fiscal year and to delete the original appropriation of $699,428 for the program. Turnbull said the change was "necessary because the OSHA program is in jeopardy of being taken over by the federal government . . . because of the local government's fiscal crisis."
The program is funded by a reimbursible federal grant requiring a 50 percent local match. For the last eight quarters, the local government has been unable to match the funds, Turnbull said. He told Richards that OSHA regional administrator Patricia Clark was "strongly advocating" the removal of the local program from the V.I. government.
Testifying at the Senate session were Labor Commissioner Sonia Jacobs-Dow and Office of Management and Budget director Ira R. Mills.
As the program now stands, Jacobs-Dow said, "we are not insuring the safety of our workers." She said appropriations for local funding have come from the Government Insurance Fund (GIF). Backing up Turnbull's statement, she said that for at least the last eight quarters the department has not received an allotment to match the grant.
As a result, she said, the program has been without necessary compliance officers, a hygienist and an assistant director for enforcement. What few compliance officers there are do not have the necessary protective equipment –- shoes, gloves, eyewear and vests — she said.
Jacobs-Dow accused Clark of a "historic campaign to colonize the Virgin Islands" and charged that it is the regional OSHA official's "personal and professional belief that the Virgin Islands isn't capable of effectively running any program." She said Clark has held this position with regard to the last three local program directors.
Mills testified that the GIF is in arrears and unable to sustain the OSHA program costs of $9 million annually. The fund, he said, generates or collects about $6 million a year and uses the revenue solely for payment of claims. The GIF has been underfunded since 1983, he said.
In response to questioning by Sen. George E. Goodwin, Mills said the V.I. government "has owed more than $6 million to OSHA dating back to the '80s or even earlier." He said the CBI Fund has a positive balance and collection projections for the current fiscal year are $3.2 million, up from the original projection of $2.5 million.
Legislative post auditor Campbell Malone advised against the governor's bill "as it stands." He questioned Mills' figures and said "the activities contemplated for this fund, as outlined in the balance of this analysis, cannot be sustained through FY 2000." He projected a shortfall of $228,553.94 in his analysis of the CBI Fund.
Mills, under questioning by senators, said his figures should not reflect a shortfall. But he was not able to satisfy senators' demands for detailed information. After he said he would have to confer with Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull to come up with the figures, a recess was called. Mills contacted Turnbull, who appeared in the afternoon session.
Bernice Turnbull testified that there are sufficient funds. Malone countered that the commissioner's figures did not justify the proposal. After the two conferred, Malone said he couldn't see on what basis the figures were determined, and that "it is not advisable the appropriation be made."
The Finance commissioner responded that "the adjusted amount for the figures was in another report." Richards asked if she had that report so that Malone could see it, and she said she did. A break was taken for the two to confer again, with Richards commenting, "I wish you could get it right the first time."
When testimony resumed, it was revealed that reported CBI collections for last fiscal year contained two errors of funds posted to the wrong accounts: $187,009.53 in August 1998 and $273,485.76 in July 1999. It was not made clear where the mispostings went.
However, Malone said, "Based upon the revised analysis, Post Audit now believes that the appropriation can be sustained for FY 2000."
Sen. Adelbert "Bert" Bryan moved that the amendment be sent to the Finance Committee for further consideration. The motion was defeated 11-2, with Bryan and Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen voting in favor.
The Senate then passed the amendment by a vote of 11-1, Bryan dissenting. Sen. David Jones was absent. Sens. Adlah "Fonsie" Donastorg and Judy Gomez were excused.


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