Jan. 23, 2003 – Union leaders received what one described as a slap in the face on Thursday from Karen M. Andrews, the government's chief labor negotiator.
And the public in the process received another intimation that Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull may have said what she meant and meant what she said on Dec. 12, when she told members of the incoming 25th Legislature at an orientation session that the V.I. government was facing a "fiscal crisis."
A memorandum sent from Andrews to Daryl George, International Association of Firefighters – support staff; Frederick Joseph, United Steelworkers of America – Lottery; and Ralph Mandrew, Virgin Islands Workers Union, on Thursday stated:
"I wish you all the very best for a healthy and prosperous 2003. Regrettably, we are forced to temporarily suspend all contract negotiations, pending a reassessment of the government's finances."
It was not immediately clear whether such memos had been sent to other officers of collective bargaining units representing government workers.
"I am disappointed," George said Thursday afternoon. "This is very bad, very sad; it really hurts."
He continued: "I have to tell these 13 ladies, our support staff, who haven't had a raise since 1992. They work very hard. It's like telling them to pack up and go home. They have been waiting for the documents from Personnel to say they are moving up. It makes us look like we weren't negotiating in good faith."
The firefighters are in limbo, George said, since "the governor signed the bill, saying the money is there, but it can't be used for pay raises." He said the Office of Management and Budget told him that the funds set aside to meet the raises cannot be used, and that it will be sending down legislation to identify other sources for funding them. "But that is verbally," he added. "They haven't sent me anything in writing."
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull signed a bill passed by the 24th Legislature in its last session, on Dec. 23, which appropriated $3.6 million from the Indirect Cost Fund and $2.5 million from the Industrial Development Fund to cover increases negotiated with the following bargaining units:
– International Association of Firefighters – supervisors, $400,000.
– International Association of Firefighters – firefighters, $1.9 million
– United Steelworkers of America – various departments and agencies, $3.8 million.
Although Turnbull signed the bill, he said in his cover letter to then-Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd that he was "not in favor of raiding the Indirect Cost Fund to support non-federal salary increases for which this government lacks resources, because it jeopardizes all federal programs. Accordingly, I will urge the 25th Legislature to seek an alternative source of funding."
George said on Thursday: "This is my biggest problem with this whole situation. The funding source is there. They raid one fund and put it back in the other the next time. The time has come to stop playing games."
Andrews referred in her memo to remarks made by Turnbull in his Jan. 13 State of the Territory speech. "We are eager to finalize a collective bargaining agreement with your bargaining units," she said. "However, Gov. Turnbull has indicated national trends, combined with a number of local factors, [have] resulted in short-term pressures on our cash reserves and on our cash-flow situation."
George isn't buying it. "That's not fair," he said. "They grant these exorbitant raises, and retro to the executive branch. Where would the money have come from for their raises, if the governor hadn't vetoed them? And what about the $35 million surplus from Fiscal Year 2001 he mentioned in his State of the Territory address?"
The governor said in that speech, delivered on Jan. 13, that a just-completed FY 2001 financial audit showed that the government ended that year with a General Fund surplus of some $35 million. Three days before that, Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull had testified in District Court that her month-earlier remark that the territory was facing a "fiscal crisis" had been taken out of context in news media reports.
The new Legislature had planned to have the Finance commissioner and other executive branch fiscal officials appear before the body, sitting as the Committee of the Whole, this past Tuesday to discuss the state of the territory's coffers. At the request of the governor, the session was postponed until next Tuesday. Gov. Turnbull asked for the postponement because the Finance commissioner would not be able to be present due to a conflicting commitment on Tuesday. She was scheduled to testify again in District Court in an ongoing case challenging the V.I. government's assessment of real property for tax purposes.
George said on Thursday afternoon that he had spoken with Joseph and Mandrew, and they were equally upset with the pay-raise situation. "We re going to meet in the next couple days to formulate a plan of action," he said. "We shouldn't have to be doing this."
According to the firefighters union leader, he has been begging Turnbull to meet with him and other labor officials. "If I could sit down with him and other labor leaders, we could address the social problems we have," he said. But, he added, "It seems he doesn't want to meet … He doesn't return calls or answer my messages."
George said the governor used to have an "open door" policy, but "now politics has taken over. There's a lack of communication between the unions and this governor now."

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