Sept. 24, 2001 – After a poignant voicing of "America the Beautiful" by senators and gallery alike Monday morning, the 24th Legislature began a final vote on the Fiscal Year 2002 budget bills, a process expected to take another two days to complete.
Before they got to the bills, however, lengthy debate arose over whether there is a need to review the record $551 million budget in light of the effects the mainland terrorist attacks are having on the Virgin Islands' economy.
Sen. Vargrave Richards asked, "How are we going to sustain this economy? Are we in la-la land? This is going to affect us for two to five years." He pointed out that other tourism locations — Florida, Hawaii and Puerto Rico — already are taking action. "They are concerned about the impact of the airline cutbacks on tourism," he said. He pointed out that Florida is considering waiving the state aviation fuel tax, and Hawaii has removed airport landing fees.
"The U.S. Congress came together to work on this problem," Richards said. "We aren't an entity unto ourselves."
Sens. Lorraine Berry, Emmett Hansen II and Richards have contacted Gov. Charles Turnbull since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, asking him to readdress his optimistic FY 2002 revenue projections. Berry urged the governor to call a meeting of the executive and legislative branches and his national financial advisers to go over the FY 2002 budget.
On Monday, Sen. David Jones agreed with their concerns. "If the budget is not revisited, we are giving the governor and Ira Mills [Office of Management and Budget director] free license to determine our priorities," Jones said. He said property and casualty insurance will be adversely affected, and "without a good insurance program, no investor will have confidence in coming here."
Jones asked the post auditor for the current balance in the Anti-Litter and Beautification Fund. "I have an idea that will help protect people on welfare after the federal Welfare Reform Act goes into effect next year, by putting them to work on the anti-litter program," he said. "There are four times as many welfare recipients on St. Croix than on St. Thomas; we have to protect them."
Sen Norma Pickard-Samuel objected. "There are some very talented people on welfare," she said. "We can't have them working for anti-litter."
Jones said the work would not be demeaning. "What I am suggesting is an interim program to give them a form of sustenance to feed their families," he said. "We have to think ahead."
Returning to the impact of the recent terrorism, Sen. Roosevelt David said, "The effects are catastrophic. How can we use the hotel occupancy tax when the hotels aren't occupied? Gross receipts taxes won't be there with no sales. With people on unemployment, who will pay income tax?" He, too, said the governor needs to call a meeting on the budget projections.
Liburd: Turnbull will meet on fiscal concerns
Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd told the body he had heard from the governor. "He will meet with all of us, his cabinet, and the business sector to discuss the whole picture," Liburd said. He added that the governor didn't say when the meeting would take place.
The leadership of the territory's hotel associations and chambers of commerce presented a series of agreed-upon recommendations for dealing with the current economic crisis to administration aides on Friday. They are awaiting a meeting with the governor and top financial officers to talk about implementing their ideas.
Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen said she had heard from the governor, too, on another subject. "He has been calling all morning to get us to stop the step increases," she said, to the obvious surprise of some of the senators.
Richards said after a brief recess that he had called the governor, who had told him, "I said no such thing."
(In mid-afternoon, Government House issued a release stating that "despite the initial economic downturn as a result of the terrorist attacks," the Turnbull administration "intends to move forward plans to place unionized government employees on their negotiated step increases.")
Zoning variance to stay
Before breaking for lunch, the Senate voted down a proposal sponsored by Pickard-Samuel seeking to repeal legislation passed in the 23rd Legislature granting a zoning variance for the food wholesaler Merchant's Market to construct and operate a warehouse in an otherwise residential Smith Bay neighborhood. Several Smith Bay residents seeking to halt the construction were in the gallery.
Several senators said they understood the residents' concerns, but they already had cast their votes in favor of the measure. The variance was approved a year ago and work on the property began last February. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg warned that the matter would wind up incourt if the variance were repealed. He said he would seek an alternative site for the facility, perhaps some government-owned land in the area.
Jones said repealing the variance would send a bad message to investors in general and to Merchant's Market in particular, noting that the firm has already invested $1 million in the project.
The repeal measure was defeated, 11-3, with Sens. Pickard-Samuel, Celestino White and Alicia Hansen casting the "yes" votes.
Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole expressed his continuing frustration at the administration's dragging its feet on a solution to the territory's solid-waste disposal problem. He pointed out that even a short-term solution isn't on the table. Caribe Waste Technologies has been hired to build a gasification plant, Cole said, but it hasn't even come before the Legislature, and the project will take years.
Caribe Waste Technologies won a competitive bidding process last year to build a plant to end the territory's need to use the Bovoni and Anguilla landfills. But the proposed deal depends on the Water and Power Authority ageeing to purchase water and electricity from CWT. WAPA announced last week that its board would not vote on the matter until at least the start of October. The Federal Aviation Administration has threatened to close the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport on St. Croix at the end of 2002 if the Anguilla landfill isn't closed.
Cole also said the administration's financial agencies should get Delegate Donna Christian Christensen to address Congress about a financial aid package for the Virgin Islands, an issue brought up at a Rules Committee meeting last week. Liburd said Dutko, the Washington, D.C., lobbying group the majority hired earlier this year, will be addressing the problem.
In addition to the budget bills, the committee approved legislation sponsored by Cole and Pickard-Samuel revising the V.I. Safe Water Act to make it consistent with national drinking water standards. It authorizes the regulation of materials used in rainwater catchment systems, including water hauled by trucks to cisterns as part of the public water system.
Budget measures approved
The FY 2002 budget bills passed on Monday were:
Bill No 24-0112 – $1.7 million for operating expenses of the Business and Commercial Properties Revolving Fund.
Bill No. 24-0113 – $24.6 million for University of the Virgin Islands salaries and expenses, and for other purposes.
Bill No. 24-0114 – $2.6 million from the Government Insurance Fund for Finance Department operating expenses.
Bill No. 24-0115 – $2.7 million from the Health Revolving Fund to the General Fund.
Bill No. 24-0116 – $5 million from the Insurance Guaranty Fund to theGeneral Fund.
Bill No. 24-0117 – $3.2 million from the Indirect Cost Fund for Office of Management and Budget, Personnel Division, Property and Procurement Department, and Finance Department salaries and operating expenses, and for other purpos
Bill No. 24-0118 – $3.5 million from the Interest Revenue Fund to the General Fund.
Bill No. 24-0119 – $70.2 million from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund, with $25.2 million to go into the General Fund and $44.7 million to pay debt service on outstanding government bonds.
Bill No. 24-0120 – $3.1 million from the Caribbean Basin Initiative Fund to the General Fund.
Bill No. 24-0121 – $6.4 million from the Anti-Litter and Beautification Fund to the Public Works Department, and for other purposes.
Bill No. 24-0122 – $306,881 for V.I. Taxicab Commission operating expenses.
Bill No. 24-0123 – $169,174 from the Transportation Revolving Fund for Property and Procurement Department salaries, fringe benefits, supplies and other services and charges.
Bill No. 24-0124 – $750,000 from the Sewage System Fund for Public Works Department operating expenses.
Bill No. 24-0125 – $514,322 for Public Services Commission operating expenses.
Bill No. 24-0126 – $1.9 million from the interest earned on bond proceeds to the General Fund.
Bill No. 24-0127 – $1.5 million from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund for Public Works Department operating expenses.
Bill No. 24-0128 – $479.7 million for executive branch operations.
Bill No. 24-0130 – $400,000 for Public Employees Relations Board operating expenses and $103,473 for the Labor Management Committee.
Bill No. 24-0133 To establish the the Disaster Recovery Contingency Revolving Fund.
Bill No. 24-0135 – amending the V.I. Code to increase to $25,000 from the current $5,000 the amount of prior fiscal-year obligations that can be paid by departments and agencies from current-year appropriations.
At the start of the session, Liburd announced it would recess at 5:30 p.m. However, after a two-hour lunch break, the meeting reconvened at 4 p.m. and recessed at 7 p.m. Liburd said the Senate's St. Thomas telephone system was entirely down and this had caused the long lunch break.
Thirteen senators were present for the morning proceedings, with Sen. Adelbert Bryan absent and Sen. Douglas Canton Jr. excused. In the afternoon, all were present except Bryan. The session is to resume at 10 a.m. Tuesday on St. Thomas.


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