Jan. 9, 2003 – A consolidated property tax trial under way in District Court on St. Thomas became the forum on Thursday for lawyers representing some of the plaintiffs to grill Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull about delays in the payment of judgments won in previous cases and remarks she made last month about the government facing a fiscal crisis.
The commissioner, who testified under subpoena, assured Judge Thomas K. Moore that her department is paying court-ordered judgments in a timely manner.
She also rebuffed what she described as an attempt by attorney David Bornn to turn the trial into a public forum on the financial troubles of the administration of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. Further, she said, Bornn was barking up the wrong tree, because only the Office of Management and Budget can provide that kind of information.
A subpoena was served on Bernice Turnbull on Wednesday while she was on St. Croix attending the last in a series of ceremonies relating the inauguration of the governor for his second term. She was accompanied to court on Thursday by Attorney General Iver Stridiron, who called the forced testimony "untimely, improper and unlawful" and asked Moore to quash the subpoena and punish Bornn by assessing a fine.
Bornn called Stridiron's comments "another example of the government changing the field and attempting to hide the ball." He pointed out that the Finance commissioner had been seated in the courtroom for the first few days of the trial, but then had been sought by a process server for two days before the subpoena was delivered.
Moore turned down Stridiron's request.
Bornn is one of more than a half dozen attorneys representing about a dozen property owners who are challenging tax assessments on some 45 properties, including lots, homes, commercial buildings, condominiums and farmland.
The plaintiffs' cases have been consolidated into a single trial because all allege that the government illegally assessed their properties based on estimated replacement cost, not estimated value. The cases have emerged since a landmark ruling in 2000 in a case brought by Charlotte Amalie commercial property owner Gary Berne. For background, see "Commercial property taxes on hold for a few".
Seeking to justify his request to compel testimony from Turnbull, Bornn said that if the court finds in favor of the multiple plaintiffs, he wants to make sure the V.I. government can pay any subsequent judgment. "We are attempting to meet our burden of proof," he said.
Bornn also pointed to remarks reported to have been made by the Finance commissioner to members of the incoming 25th Legislature at an orientation session held at Marriott's Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort on Dec. 12. She told them the government is facing a financial crisis, he told Moore, so some analysis must have been done to lead her to draw that conclusion.
On the witness stand Thursday, Turnbull said her remarks at the legislative orientation had been taken out of context by members of the press eager to sell newspapers. She said she made the statement after looking at the government's bank accounts; but since cash flow is constantly changing, she added, those remarks only reflected her concerns at that time.
"My intent to the senators was to tell them exactly how cash flow works," she said, adding that she wanted to encourage the lawmakers not to make spending decisions without knowing what funding was available.
When asked what she saw in the government accounts in December that caused her concern, the Finance commissioner told the court she could not remember.
Stridiron tried to reassure the property tax case plaintiffs and their attorneys, saying he could not recall any instance of the government defaulting on a judgment or a court-ordered payment. But questions were raised about the length of time it takes for payments to be made.
After several minutes of questioning, Bornn and another plaintiff's attorney, James Derr, got Turnbull to agree to provide the following documents, which they said would help determine the government's ability to pay obligations:
– A copy of the Fiscal Year 2003 budget.
– A summary of amounts owed in outstanding court judgments.
– A summary of outstanding retroactive pay owed government employees.
– A report of vendors owed payments in excess of 30 days.
– Copies of letters written to the Office of Management and Budget on financial projections made between 1997 and 2001.
Stridiron and members of his legal team said they should be able to provide most of the documentation by Friday morning when the trial was to resume. However, Turnbull indicated that it might take up to a week to assemble some of the information.
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