Editor’s Note: This story has been updated Thursday afternoon to include comment from Government House spokesman Jean Greaux.
Despite meeting last week with the administration’s financial team, V.I. teachers’ unions remain staunchly opposed to salary freezes proposed by Gov. John deJongh Jr. to address an impending $75 million shortfall, union leaders said in a joint statement Wednesday.
In the statement, teachers’ unions from both St. Croix and St. Thomas–St. John condemned the governor’s austerity package as "contrary to the spirit and letter of the contract by not implementing a balanced approach to balancing the budget."
The two unions are refusing to support parts of the austerity package affecting union contracts and are encouraging other union members to lobby the Legislature against the plan.
According to the statement, the teachers’ unions believe their members and other unions are being unfairly asked to bear the burden of cuts and that the government "is only open to suggestions that are impregnated and conceived by them."
Union representatives suggested filling the budget gap via a cruise ship tax and cutting back on government vehicles, according to the statement, but were told a tax would not work and that vehicles were already cut back.
Reached by phone after regular business hours, Finance Commissioner Angel Dawson said the government was looking at any and all practical measures, wherever their source, although he deferred to Management and Budget Director Debra Gottlieb and the Governor’s Office for specific information.
A cruise passenger tax was not part of Gov. John deJongh’s austerity proposals, but Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe has sponsored a bill to impose a $1 per-passenger fee, and Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson-Doty gave the concept some support during Senate hearings last week, he said.
"Speaking just for myself, that seems to contradict the notion we are rejecting other proposals," he said.
Government House Director of Communications Jean Greaux said Wednesday night the governor has offered to meet with the unions’ financial analysts and the teachers’ unions had not pursued the offer or suggested viable alternatives.
"Other union leaders and representatives have met with Gov. deJongh and worked with the administration to implement measures that look to avoid layoffs," Greaux said. "We hope that the representatives of the teachers’ union will decide to work together with us as well."
In February, the St. Croix Federation of Teachers voted to work strictly to their contract in protest of the proposed salary freezes. No work actions are threatened in the joint statement.
Also in February, deJongh submitted legislation to freeze salaries for public employees until the end of fiscal year 2012 and impose several austerity measures to cut costs and increase revenues without curtailing basic government services. Those include across-the-board spending cuts and a partial hiring freeze.
The Austerity Measures Act would also establish three unpaid holidays: Transfer Day, Holy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter) and the day after Christmas. It also implements a 1-percent increase in the gross receipts tax, a 2-percent increase in hotel tax, and a 911 surcharge of $1 on cell phones, a charge that already exists for landlines.
The V.I. Legislature is currently considering the austerity proposals.