May 3, 2002 – Representatives of various community groups came out for a Senate committee hearing on St. Croix Thursday to voice their overwhelming support for proposed legislation that would keep property- and gasoline-tax revenues on the islands where they are collected, and use the money for road upkeep, street lighting and water service.
Much of the testimony before the Government Operations Committee on the Infrastructure Maintenance Act of 2001 proposed by Sen. Emmett Hansen II had to do with the economic and social effects that the lack of lighting causes in the community.
The bill, No. 24-0196, would establish separate accounts for St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John and Water Island designated for road maintenance, street lighting and potable water. Funding would come from 5 percent of property taxes collected on each island and, in the case of the road funds, from the territory's tax of 14 cents per gallon assessed gasoline vendors.
The government collects "approximately $124 million" in property taxes annually, Hansen, the committee chair, said. He said $9 million of that could be reinvested back into the community.
Joseph Thomas, Water and Power Authority executive director, said the plan offers a viable, dependable approach to ensuring a continuous funding source for the street lighting program, although WAPA prefers to go the route of a surcharge on customers' bills. "As you know, street/area light funds were appropriated by the Senate and approved by the governor on Dec. 29, 2001, but no dollars have reached the authority," he said.
Thomas suggested that a dollar amount and fund-transfer timing be stipulated to provide a stable business funding base. He said WAPA could complete its planned street/area lighting program in 18 months with a surcharge on bills or within 12 months under the proposed infusion of $3 million from gasoline taxes. At present, he said, about 8,000 lights are in place, while some 12,000 poles have no lights.
Thomas also said a continuous repair and renewal plan must be in place for the potable water system. The system currently experiences a 30 percent leakage loss, down from 60 percent a year ago. The authority's goal, he said, is a 20 perent allowance for leakage.
The V.I. Territorial Association of Realtors asked for a guarantee that safeguards would be in place to prevent the funds from being diverted to other projects "in times of budgetary shortfalls." Roland Groder, president-elect of the group, said inadequate lighting and roads in disrepair reflect a lack of governmental concern, which devalues properties. He noted that muggings and armed robberies occur frequently in poorly lit areas, and traffic accidents and vehicle damage often result from poorly maintained roads.
"If we are ever to grow our economy, we must take action to correct theses situations," Groder said. He told the senators about an agent who had been working with a prospective business owner who was ready to sign a purchase agreement. The investor was robbed at gunpoint that evening in downtown Christiansted as the two left their hotel for dinner at a nearby restaurant. The next morning they hurried off the island, taking with them "investment dollars that will be spent elsewhere in the Caribbean," the Realtor said.
Closing before dark for safety's sake
Denise Lewis, program coordinator for the Grove Place Weed and Seed organization, said a number of community-based after-school programs for youngsters can help to deter crime and delinquency. These include the Beacon Schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, the newly opened Hispanic technology center on King Street in Christiansted and her own group. But she said concern about the safety of the children and their parents who were walking at night to attend Weed and Seed activities at Eulalie Rivera School led her to close down operations at 5 p.m.
"In order to fulfill our commitment to the community, the Weed and Seed program should have programs from 3 p.m. until at least 8 p.m. to give our young men and ladies constructive, drug-free and violence-free activities to participate in," she told the committee.
Lewis said areas with poor lighting or no lighting are a great concern. "Safety is one of the top priorities in my community," she said, from "school-age children attending the Weed and Seed program to our seniors walking to church for evening services." She expressed support for the 5 percent property-tax assignment but recommended that a means be determined for all residents to pay their fair share, not just property owners.
Alice Henry, executive director of Our Town Frederiksted, said her agency works along with others such as the Frederiksted Economic Development Association to identify programs that will promote, enhance and develop the Frederiksted area. She said there are property owners who cannot lease their properties because of lurking criminal elements, and that business owner close their doors early to ensure their safety.
Neglected and run-down properties, abandoned lots and poor lightning have posed a great challenge, Henry said, explaining that her agency offers low-interest loans for property rehabilitation and has initiated a paint-and-scrape program to provide a facelift to many town buildings.
"Where there is little light, criminals run amok," she said. "Our organizations are currently looking for venues to bring residents into the town with the departure of Carnival Cruise Lines from our shores. We must provide lights that will assist in ensuring the safety of our residents so that the activities that are planned will be well attended and allowed to flourish."
Last week, the Carnival announced that it has deleted St. Croix from its cruise itineraries due to repeated incidents of crime against passengers and crew. Also last week, the Navy reported that a gunman robbed a group of sailors on shore leave around midnight in the vicinity of the Frederiksted Health Center, an area that is dimly lit.
Calls for making funds raid-proof
Expressing support for Hansen's bill, Henry, too, noted that often government funds are diverted to "deal with other activities not related to that fund." (See story "Raided fund has no money for road repairs".)
Roger Dewey, executive director of the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, said safety, especially for children, is a critical element of economic growth. It's an island-wide issue, he testified, but in particular "I am concerned about the towns of Christiansted and Frederiksted."
The foundation has undertaken the revitalization of the "Sunday Market" Times Square area. Dewey said infrastructure maintenance has been a concern for years but has not been prioritized. He agreed with WAPA's Thomas that there must be a "locked-box" provision for the funds Hansen proposes, so that they cannot be diverted to other uses.
Senators also were told that the Christiansted Retail Association is conducting a survey of areas around the town that are potential lurking places for criminals and is clearing trash and debris from the community.
Sen. Adelbert Bryan asked that a financial analysis be prepared by the Post Audit Division and that a legal opinion be issued on the economic impact of the property-tax apportionment. He said all residents, including condominium owners and housing community tenants, should contribute to the fund.
The bill was approved unanimously with Bryan not present for the vote. It goes next to the Rules Committee.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who is not a Government Operations Committee member, angrily asked all present where they all were when it was announced that the three public high schools would lose their accreditation, and when the Senate discussed education concerns. He told them a lack of adequate education leads to a lack of economic opportunit
ies which then leads to increased crime. "The only solution to our crime problem is solid system of education," he said. "Nobody stands up to fight about this. It is time we redirect our efforts."
Testimony that had been scheduled on the not-for-profit Frederiksted Health Center and the transition of its employees from government-worker status was postponed, to be rescheduled after May 26 so as to ensure that the employees have been briefed on the transition plans. The rescheduling was rquested by the governor's deputy chief of staff, Alric Simmonds, and the center's executive director, Vivian Ebbessen-Fludd. "We have been meeting for months, years," Simmonds said, and it would not be appropriate to discuss the agreement at a hearing "before the employees or unions are notified."
All committee members were present for roll call: Sens. Bryan, Donald "Ducks" Cole, Roosevelt David, Carlton Dowe, Emmett Hansen, David Jones and Norma Pickard-Samuel.
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