A federal takeover of the territory's Occupational Safety and Health Administration program, run by the V.I. Labor Department, was averted Thursday as the Senate passed a bill appropriating the necessary funding to keep the program under the territory's management.
The special session was held in response to a request from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to approve the funding.
In a letter to Senate President Vargrave Richards, Turnbull outlined amendments to appropriate $748,428 from the Caribbean Basin Initiative Fund to the OSHA program for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2000, and to delete the original appropriation of $699,428 to the program.
The governor said the appropriations "are 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 federal reimbursable grant that requires a 50 percent local match to federal funds. For the past eight quarters the local government has been unable to match these funds, Turnbull said.
The governor told Richards that the federal OSHA program's regional administrator, Patricia Clark, is "strongly advocating" the removal of the local program from the V.I. government.
Testifying at the session were Labor Commissioner Sonia Jacobs Dow and Ira R. Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Dow said, "We are not ensuring the safety of our workers" as the program now stands. She said appropriations for local funding have come from the Government Insurance Fund.
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. She added that the few compliance officers they have do not have the necessary protective equipment – shoes, gloves, eyewear and vests.
Dow also was vehement in noting her adversary relationship with Clark, the federal regional administrator.
She accused Clark of a "historic campaign to colonize the Virgin Islands." Dow said it is Clark's "personal and professional belief that the Virgin Islands isn't capable of effectively running any program." The commissioner noted that Clark has maintained this position through the past three local directors of the OSHA program.
Mills testified that the Government Insurance Fund is in arrears and unable to sustain OSHA programmatic costs, which total $9 million annually. The fund, he said, only generates or collects approximately $6 million annually and uses those revenues solely to pay claims. He said that dating back to 1983, the insurance fund has been underfunded.
Under questioning from Sen. George E. Goodwin, Mills testified that "the government has owed more than $6 million to OSHA dating back to the 80s, or even earlier."
Mills said, however, said that the Caribbean Basin Initiative fund has a positive balance, and that new collection projections for fiscal year 2000 should total $3.2 million by Sept. 30. The original projection was $2.5 million.
In his report, Campbell Rone Malone, Legislature post auditor, rejected the 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 said he saw a shortfall of $228,553.94, as detailed in his analysis of the CBI fund.
Mills, under questioning by the senators, explained his figures, saying they should not reflect a shortfall, but he was not able to satisfy the senators' demands for detailed information. He said he would have to confer with Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull to come up with the figures. Recess was called while Mills contacted Turnbull, who appeared in the afternoon session.
Turnbull testified that there were sufficient funds. However, Malone said that the commissioner's figures did not justify the proposal. After Turnbull and Malone conferred, Malone said that he couldn't figure the basis for the projections and added, "It is not advisable the appropriation be made."
Turnbull then said "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. Time was then called for two to confer again. Richards, noting the vexation felt by all senators, said, "I wish you could get it right the first time."
After the conference, it was revealed that the CBI collections for FY 1999 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.
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 voted down 11-2, with Bryan and Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen the only yes votes.
The final vote was 11-1, with Bryan voting no. Sen. David Jones was absent for the vote. Sens. Adlah "Fonsie" Donastorg and Judy Gomez were excused.


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