April 22, 2005 The sign on the door outside reads "The Honorable Craig Barshinger, Senator-at-Large," but when visitors knock and enter, there's no one to greet them except the senator himself.
"I'm senator, secretary and chief bottle washer," Barshinger said Wednesday afternoon as he looked around the cramped office.
Three months have passed since the senator was first sworn in, but Barshinger has been unable to staff his St. Thomas and St. John office, which he is required to do as senator-at-large. But he's not the only one with staffing issues.
To make matters worse for Barshinger, his chief of staff Omar Henry recently fired three of his five employees in his St. Croix office, leaving him with a staff of two. The employees Kima Merrick, Jennyferr Polanco and Erica Greene all received termination letters Monday.
"There was no single factor that led to the termination of the employees," Barshinger said.
Barshinger said Henry had hired four employees for the St. Croix office with the belief that his office would be receiving close to the minimum budget allotment awarded to the former senator-at-large Almando "Rocky" Liburd about $260,000. Barshinger added he wanted to operate from his St. Croix office due to the high unemployment rate on that island.
However, to his surprise, Sen. Lorraine L. Berry, senate president, informed Barshinger on Jan. 10 that the allotment for his office was $211,000. The money is supposed to cover the salaries of staff for all three islands, travel between islands, office supplies and equipment.
"This is much less than a senator-at-large has ever received in the past," Barshinger said.
Barshinger said he reduced the salaries of all his staff and also informed them that he may not be able to keep all of them, but would try.
"It was a tough situation at the office because we had a limited budget and the staff was too big for the budget," Barshinger said.
The senator wrote Berry a letter in February asking her to increase his office budget by transferring some of his salary to it so that he could hire staff for his St. Thomas and St. John offices.
In a letter dated Feb. 28, Berry wrote, "The compensation for senators of the Legislature is established in Title 2, Section 71 of the V.I. Code. There is no authorization in this statute to transfer a portion of a senator's salary to the operating budget of the Legislature to finance operating expenses of that senator."
Barshinger said morale became low among his employees as their workload increased and their pay was reduced. Conflicts also arose between the chief of staff and the other office employees.
"A lot of things have happened to indicate the office staff was no longer responding to Mr. Henry's leadership style," Barshinger said.
Barshinger said he supported Henry's decision to fire the three employees.
"Their behavior afterwards confirms that this was a right decision," Barshinger said, adding they shredded documents and took diskettes after receiving the termination letters. "I'm concerned about it because the work that was done was already paid for by the people of the Virgin Islands."
Barshinger is once again seeking to hire staff one each for his St. Thomas and St. John offices. However, his problem remains the same adequate funding to hire qualified staff and proper equipment to, as he puts it, do the will of the people.
This problem is not one facing Barshinger alone, but other members of the Senate minority as well, who each receive $150,000 to fund their offices and pay staff salaries.
"It's really creating a serious problem for quality work," Sen. Roosevelt David, minority leader, said Thursday. David said he has three full-time employees and two volunteers.
David said according to his calculations, members of the Senate majority are allotted about $400,000 each when subtracting the total minority budget from the Legislature's $16 million budget.
"The at-large senator is getting a lower budget than any other senator-at-large in recent history," David said. "This is atrocious. It's a personal vendetta against him."
When contacted Thursday about the seeming disparity between the majority and minority allotments, Berry said she could not say "off the top of my head" what each of the majority senators was receiving. Berry also refused to reveal her own allotment, but said rather she would call back with the figures after contacting the Senate's business office.
The Source has been trying since January to obtain the budget allotment for all senators of the 26th Legislature. A letter was hand-delivered to Berry's office Jan. 13 requesting the information. But despite repeated calls and promises that the information would be provided, the data, which is public information, has yet to be disclosed.
Sen. Louis P. Hill said Thursday the limited funding has become a hindrance in putting out quality legislation. Hill now has four staff members, having let one go because of his budget constraints. He said he has also reduced the salaries of his current staff and is "lucky" that they are loyal to him.
"The major problem that I have right now is working on specific legislation that requires expert assistance," Hill said.
For example, he is working on legislation to bring captive insurance companies to the territory but is unable to pay for expert advice.
"It's [his budget] restricted my progress on this bill because of the inadequate resources," Hill said.
Hill said another restriction he has is his inability to attend Senate committee hearings on St. Croix. Hill said he could only attend meetings for the three committees that he is a part of because he would have to pay traveling expenses from his budget for any meeting outside the three committees.
"It is my intent to live within the budget of $150,000," Hill said. "I recognize that that is going to be difficult, but I have no intention of overspending."
Hill said he was "very disturbed" by the offices given to Crucian senators at the Senate building on St. Thomas.
"The legislative staff have better equipment than the senators," Hill said. "It's disgraceful."
A visit to Sen. Ronald Russell's St. Thomas office revealed deteriorating desks with drawers missing, stained chairs, and outdated computers. Russell said to obtain equipment or supplies for his office he must go through Berry, who has to approve or deny the purchase even though it comes out of his $150,000 budget allotment. Russell has three staff members he pays out of his budget, none on St. Thomas.
"What they have done is essentially cripple the functions of the minority senators," Russell said. "Now the minority senators are faced with seven people trying to do the people's business with an unfair percentage of the Legislature's money."
Russell's chief of staff, Mark Barnaby, said the office budget has really impacted him and other staff members. Russell had seven staff members in the previous legislature.
"It takes me away from the job that I have to do as chief of staff," Barnaby said. "It really is a burden not having the required staff because we're not able to do the people's business as we need to."
A few doors down the hallway, Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville was facing issues of his own. With his keyboard placed on his lap, Figueroa-Serville attempted to respond to mail on his computer. He said he had no desk rack to place his keyboard as he typed.
Figueroa-Serville said his office allotment of $150,000 is restricting him from adequately serving the people. He has four staff members on St. Croix and none on St. Thomas.
"I don't even have a receptionist on St. Croix," Figueroa-Serville said.
Figueroa-Serville said his
main problem is not being able to attend hearings on St. Thomas for the committees of which he is not a member. To attend those hearings he would have to pay his travel expenses from the $150,000, which is only enough for salaries, he said.
"My staff works hard," Figueroa-Serville said.
Figueroa-Serville said all senators should be treated with dignity and respect whether they are in the majority or minority. He said he should not have his visitors to sit in dirty, stained furniture when they come to visit him in his office.
He added, "I know to the victor goes the spoils is what is said in politics, but don't handicap us to the point that it becomes very difficult to serve the people."
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.