Sept. 5, 2001 – Sen. Emmett Hansen II got his feet wet Wednesday in his first meeting as chair of the Legislature's newly reconstituted Government Operations Committee. Administration officials on hand to testify about government employees' coming step increases in salary almost took a back seat to the senators vying with one another for credit for the increases.
Testimony was taken from Bernice Turnbull, Finance commissioner; Joanne Barry, Personnel Division director; Karen Andrews, Office of Collective Bargaining chief negotiator; and Ira R. Mills, Office of Management and Budget director. Louis Willis, Internal Revenue Bureau director, and Aubrey A. Lee, Public Employees Relations Board chair, were excused. Lee had written to Hansen saying that because PERB cases were pending, it wouldn't be appropriate for him to comment at the meeting.
The increases in pay and retirement benefits were mandated in the $100 million supplemental appropriations bill that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull signed into law on June 21. Barry said the step increases are on schedule to be reflected in Oct. 18 paychecks. As of Wednesday morning, she said, 4,500 Notices of Personnel Action, or NOPAs, had been processed for active employees and 1,007 for retirees.
That's when the discord began. The ensuing argument centered on the June 15 special session called by the governor for the Senate to act on his bill mandating step increases. At that session, after the majority dismissed administration budget and finance officials, saying their testimony was not needed, the minority senators and the sole independent, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, walked out of the chamber in protest of having been denied an opportunity to question the officials. The majority then passed the bill, 8-0.
On Wednesday, Senate majority members Carlton Dowe and Donald "Ducks" Cole claimed, not for the first time, that the 24th Legislature was responsible for the increases to put the unionized government employees on step. Cole said the majority alone had drafted the legislation and criticized the minority's role in not voting for it.
However, minority members Lorraine Berry and Roosevelt David claimed, not for the first time, that legislation passed in the 23rd Legislature had laid the groundwork for the increases. A $2 million appropriation for the Internal Revenue Bureau to hire more collection officers and another measure mandating Industrial Development Commission reform paved the way for the $100 million "windfall" the IRB has projected to receive from major taxpayers this year, Berry and David said.
Cole charged that the majority senators had passed the legislation with no help from the minority, who "didn't want to put the workers on step." This brought non-committee member Berry to the floor to defend the minority's role.
Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel weighed in. "This sounds like a credit company," she chided, adding "we should get to the people's business," after which she said the 24th Legislature deserved the credit for passing the measure.
Hansen finally sounded the gavel: "We're not going to do this all day," he said, directing the questions back to Personnel's Barry, who, along with the other officials, had been a silent observer.
Hansen asked the officials how they were reconciling the recent legislation mandating a $15,000 minimum annual salary for government workers — up from the previous minimum of $10,000 — with the step increases. Barry and Andrews both said they were working on that, adding that the minimum salary change "has to go almost on a case-to-case basis."
Several senators and labor union officials who testified later in the meeting addressed the issue of retirees' increases. Barry and Andrews said they were working closely with the Government Employees Retirement System and hoped to have all retirees' increases in place by late November or December.
"We have to get the active employees finished first," Barry said. Friday is the deadline for all departments to have their paperwork in for the step increases, she said, adding all department heads met with the governor on Aug. 16, and everyone was aware of the deadline.
On other matters…
With so many top administration officials present at one time, several senators took advantage of the opportunity to bring up matters not on the agenda.
David asked Finance Commissioner Turnbull if she would consider another real property tax amnesty. One just ended Aug. 13. "You really have thrown me a curve ball," Turnbull replied. "I didn't come here prepared to talk about property tax, and no, I am not in favor of another amnesty."
She said Finance has a sale of delinquent tax properties planned for November and wouldn't be able to conduct the sale if an amnesty were in effect. David maintained that an amnesty is needed at least until Oct. 18, when employees get their raises. Turnbull then said she would go along with one or two pay periods but "definitely not three or six months. We have to enforce the law."
She also said most government employees have already paid their property taxes.
Sens. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen and Vargrave Richards have recently spoken out in favor of extending the amnesty. Turnbull said Wednesday, "If it is legislated and the governor signs it, I'll have to carry it out."
After reading into the record a letter he had written to Turnbull asking for a breakdown of the 24th Legislature's "bloated budget," Donastorg said he believed Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd "might be" examining some contracts of the 24th Legislature.
Donastorg brought up the majority's contract with the Dutko Group, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, in effect since January. "They are paid $15,000 a month, and we don't know anything they have done," he said, questioning whether the Legislature even had the authority to have entered into the contract.
Returning discussion — briefly — to the pending salary increases, senators asked Mills how they will be sustained — a question that has repeatedly been put to the IRB's Willis. Mills repeated what he and Willis have stated: that as long as the infrastructure holds, the increases can be sustained.
Sen. David Jones suggested his colleagues concentrate on generating revenues for the territory and forget about who should get credit for past legislation. "I am always interested in outside investment," he said. "We need it." He noted he is trying to get an airline, Sun Airways, to establish a hub on St. Croix.
Mills said the big issue is solid waste management. "We have to get that right," he said, noting last weekend's sewage discharge that closed the beach at Brewers Bay on St. Thomas. Mills said a solid waste task force is being formed. "Tourism is our No. 1 industry," he reminded the senators.
Cole needed no reminding. He cited steps he has taken to get a short-term plan from the governor to resolve the waste problem. Federal Aviation Administration officials have said they will close the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix by the end of 2002 unless the adjacent Anguilla landfill is closed first. Cole, as chair of the Planning and Environmental Protection Committee, is trying to get a short-term solution in place.
Several union officials gave testimony. While all expressed appreciation for the coming step increases, all raised issues of their equality and distribution. In response, Barry and Andrews cited measures they are employing to address the concerns.
Vernelle de Legarde, in her fifth day as new president of the St. Thomas-St. John chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said she was happy to have the raises for now so the union can get on to other matters, political awareness being one of them. All of the union representatives said they have by no means forgot
ten their retroactive raises.
Andrews explained the problems that occur when an employee switches from one union to another, and/or is promoted or demoted. She said the initial NOPA must be generated by the first union and forwarded to the second union for submission. "Some of these cases fall between the cracks," she said, "such as when an employee doesn't neatly fall into one category." That's why, she said, cases must be dealt with one at a time.
Senators committee members present were Adelbert Bryan, Cole, David, Donastorg, Dowe, Hansen II and Pickard-Samuel. Senate non-committee members attending were Berry and Jones.


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