Feb. 28, 2003 – Government House announced in a release on Friday that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has signed into law the two bills passed by the 25th Legislature at the special session convened at his behest on Feb. 12.
One measure converts the Fiscal Year 2003 budgets for executive branch departments and agencies from itemized to lump-sum appropriations and also provides for funding for St. John's VITRAN operations to remain available until expended.
Lump-sum budgets was something Turnbull had repeatedly sought in vain from the Finance Committee in the 24th Legislature, and something that then-senator Alicia "Chucky" Hansen as committee chair had refused to give him. With itemized budgets, department heads on repeated occasions had to petition the committee, hat in hand, for permission to move money from one category to another when needs differed from projections.
With conversion to lump-sum appropriations, Friday's release stated, "department and agency heads can manage, control and prioritize their budgets during the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2003."
The other measure calls for the Tax Assessor's Office to assess commercial real estate properties for the years 2001 through 2004 based on the 1999 valuations and sets the next commercial property assessment for 2005.
The tax assessment legislation is intended to provide a way for the government to bring desperately needed revenues into its coffers through collection of real property taxes while a challenge to the territory's manner of assessing real property values for taxing purposes is before the District Court.
However, it remains to be seen whether the legislation just signed into law by the governor will stand up to challenges.
A week after the Senate special session, according to published reports, District Judge Thomas K. Moore angrily charged in his court that the government was trying to circumvent his ban on its issuing of any more tax bills until ongoing legal challenges to the method of assessment are resolved. His comments came on the final day of testimony in a consolidated case of 11 property owners suing the government over its practice of assessing taxes based on replacement rather than market value of properties. The plaintiffs are challenging the assessments made for 2000. (See "Judge irate over move to send out 2001 tax bills".)
While testimony in the consolidated portion of the trial is concluded, separate hearings for each property owner are to follow, and observers have said it could be months before a final judgment is rendered.
In January, the V.I. Justice Department attorneys filed a motion for dismissal of the case; Moore rejected it.
Last July, at a Senate budget hearing, Tax Assessor Roy Martin said his office was in "serious trouble" because of the settlement in December 2000 of the first legal challenge to the government's valuation practice, filed by Berne Corp. in August 2000. That case has since given rise to the others.
The terms of the settlement were sealed, Martin said, but the parties agreed to have the court name an independent "special master" to review the territory's procedures and process of assessing commercial properties. Martin said then that the special master must see that the Tax Assessor's Office meets certain requirements before it can resume appraising commercial properties.

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