Oct. 25, 2005A bill establishing a $20,000 minimum salary for all full-time government employees was held in the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration Tuesday. The bill would hike government salaries from the current $15,000 per annum, and senators felt a study to determine the bill's impact on the local community needed to be conducted first.
The decision was impacted by testimony from Cecil Benjamin, Labor commissioner, Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Karen Andrews, chief negotiator for the Collective Bargaining Office.
While Benjamin said he supported the bill "in principle," he said senators need to look at whether a raise would be feasible.
In addition to not having an identified funding source for the increase, Benjamin said the bill would also discourage workers from seeking employment in the private sector.
"The bill also does not explain how the increase would affect employees working in the government for a long period of time," Benjamin said. "A person just coming into the government system would be receiving the same $20,000 salary as a person who has been working for two, three years in a department or agency."
Benjamin suggested a cost of living adjustment for government employees be considered instead. "If this bill were to pass, we would be the only part of the U.S. to have a set minimum salary," Benjamin said. Benjamin added the $5,000 increase would mean the hourly wage for government workers would increase from $7.15 an hour to $9.45 [based on a 40 hour week it would actually be $9.61] an hour for employees — significantly greater than the national minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, who introduced the bill, told Benjamin the V.I. could not be compared to the mainland, as many residents can't "afford to pay for their families to eat or get an education." In fact, the only area of the U.S. with a cost of living comparable to the V.I., Donastorg said, is "the Hamptons."
Andrews expounded on Benjamin's statements adding the increase would conflict with collective bargaining agreements being negotiated between the government and local unions. A large portion of the 1,941 government employees currently making less than $20,000 a year will soon be receiving increases in their agreements, Andrews said. Ongoing negotiations with the Seafarers International Union will also bring increases to close to 2,000 other government employees.
Like Benjamin, Andrews questioned senators about the funding source for the proposed increase in salaries, especially since money is needed to fund contracts negotiated for 2005 and 2006.
While Andrews said all contracts negotiated prior to 2005 will be funded through the executive budget for 2006, $2 million is still need to fund Fiscal year 2005. "In addition, we owe $4.5 million for 2006," she said. "Also, by order of the Public Employees Relations Board, I am currently negotiating with the Seafarers International Union on behalf of the Masters, Emergency Room Physicians, Public Health Physicians, and Dentists."
The estimated cost of these negations will exceed the $6.5 million needed to fund the salary increase, Andrews added.
She said salary increases mandated under previous administrations have caused problems with employees' pay plans which have only recently been fixed. "When we increase the salaries of employees on the bottom, we have to make sure that's adjusted accordingly on all levels of the government," Andrews said.
While Donastorg said the money to fund the increase can come from excess government revenues, the General Fund, or appropriations made in future budgets, Mills said he does not know if there will be enough revenues generated in upcoming years to sustain the salary increase.
Although the government did see a surplus of cash this year, there is no guarantee that revenue would be recurring, Mills said.
Donastorg argued the increase will not be implemented until Jan. 2007, giving the government "plenty of time" to work out all the bill's details.
Taking the advice of the testifiers, however, senators decided to hold the bill until Andrews provides the committee with an in-depth analysis of the increase's impact on the community, and economy. Andrews said she could have the analysis complete in about two months.
In other action, senators approved a federal grant application for the St. Thomas Fishermen's Association in the amount of $347,182. The money from the grant will go toward developing data for the territory on the marine life in the area, as well as determining what effect pollution and soil runoff has marine life.
Lease agreements between the government and Courtesy Jeep Rent Inc, and Deryk Mohamed/D.M. Woodworking were also approved. The agreements will go onto the full Senate body for a vote.
Present at Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Donastorg, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Norman Jn. Baptiste, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, and Usie R. Richards. Sen. Neville James was absent.
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