Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James II went to Friday's Rotary of St. John meeting wearing his Division of Banking and Insurance hat, prepared to talk about the compulsory liability auto insurance law and homestead property exemptions. He did that, but what had the group abuzz at the end was a phone call he made following his address — and what he found out.
In the course of questions from the audience after his talk, "concern was raised about the total amount of property taxes paid from St. John," a release from James's office stated. "The lieutenant governor immediately called the Office of the Tax Assessor and was supplied with the listing of total property taxes paid by the territory," with island breakdowns.
This impressed property owners present who had been demanding since July 1998 "that Management and Budget director Ira Mills tell them what proportion of the V.I. tax revenues they contribute," the V.I. Daily News reported, adding that Mills never did produce an answer.
The data also confirmed what common sense had told many of them long before: Proportionally, St. John property owners pay a lot more than their counterparts on St. Thomas or St. Croix. According to the figures supplied to James by the Tax Assessor's Office, in the last tax billing, St. John was assessed nearly $4.6 million, or about 10 percent of the territory's total property taxes. James told the Rotarians St. Thomas bills for the same period totaled nearly $24.8, which was 56 percent of the territory's total, and St. Croix's billing came to just over $15 million, for 34 percent.
The most recent census data, from 1995, put St. John's population at 4,030, the Daily News said. This compares to more than 50,000 each for St. Thomas and St. Croix. On a per capita breakdown, the property tax billings worked out to $1,135 for residents of St. John, $457 for those of St. Thomas and $299 for those of St. Croix, the newspaper said.
Property taxes are assessed according to the same formula territorywide: 2 percent of 60 percent of assessed value. There are, as James pointed out in his talk to the Rotarians, general homestead exemptions as well as special exemptions for veterans and senior citizens. But this does not account for the disparity.
The basic explanation, according to Inga Hiilivirta of Islandia Real Estate, which has been serving St. John for more than 30 years, is that property "is a lot more valuable" on the island than elsewhere in the territory, and has been for decades. Part of the reason is that relatively little acreage is privately held, most of the island being V.I. National Park land. At the same time, the limited opportunity for development due to that very national park dominance have made St. John attractive to upscale investors, be they permanent residents, seasonal occupants or rental property owners.
Hiilivirta cited figures from St. John's real estate Multiple-Listing Service showing that 44 homes were sold last year, for an average price of $447,886. That's an average of nearly half a million dollars per house. She also said that 66 land parcels sold at an average price of $149,452; 13 condominium units sold at an average of $202,269; and the single commercial property sold went for $390,000.
At the same time, St. John has a very small public housing community presence, and relatively few rental units for full-time residents. Further, many would question the census figure of 4,030 for St. John's population as low.
Some St. John residents see the higher per capita tax base as leverage to demand an improvement in government services, considering their island short-changed in many regards. A recent case in point was a comment by a Public Works official to the effect that people living on the "isolated" island should expect to have to pay a premium for trash removal services.
The Daily News quoted resident Ed Bermingham as saying "St. John is being treated as a cash cow by the V.I. government" and that the tax figures provide an argument for St. John to have its own budget. However, within a taxing jurisdiction, the system does not typically channel the most public services to those paying the most taxes. On the contrary, the most taxes derive from those entities already having the most resources and are directed in greater proportion to those with the least.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here