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Cruz Bay
Wednesday, July 6, 2022


Gov. Charles Turnbull's administration is in for a fight over any cuts that result in the layoffs of unionized government employees, according to Central Labor Council President Luis "Tito" Morales.
"So far, none of the unions are in favor of the cuts and they expressed that yesterday," Morales said Saturday, a day after a 15 percent budget reduction was announced.
"If it comes to lay-offs, the last to come is the first to go. Before any unionized employees are laid off, all the temporary people have to be laid off and all the exempt people have to go first," he said.
"I'm not supporting any layoffs in education," said Cecil Benjamin, president of the St. Croix American Federation of Teachers. "We've already been living with a cut since 1991 and 1992. We're being paid at 1993 levels, that's a cut."
Benjamin said the administration should have begun eliminating the "numerous, unnecessary" upper-level exempt positions when it took over in January.
The unions' frustrations, however, are also directed at the private sector.
"If we say everyone needs to participate in solving problems, we can't continue to give exemptions to companies and balance the budget on the backs of government employees," Morales said. "The private sector has to participate. If the private sector doesn't do its part, then the government employees won't do their part and we'll leave it fall where it may."
Turnbull announced the hefty budget reduction after meeting with federal officials Thursday and meeting with the legislature, labor leaders and business leaders on Friday. He has apparently ordered department heads to cut their budgets by 15 percent.
The budget was previously trimmed by 5 percent from about $488 million to $466 million. The additional 10 percent cut drops spending another $46 million, but exact figures were not available Saturday.
Benjamin said, however, some departments should cut more and some should cut less.
"This one-size-fits-all approach to solve the problem is wrong. The governor needs to prioritize in terms of what is most important," Benjamin said. "I can't see cutting education by 10 or 15 percent. You'll be throwing out some valuable programs and many teachers are already leaving.
"Come September, you're going to see a dire shortage," he said.
Turnbull is now expected to send several pieces of cost cutting legislation to the Senate in the coming weeks. According to senators interviewed Friday, these bills may include authorization to take out a $100 million loan, government reorganization, the elimination of five government holidays, and the 15 percent budget cut.
"Some of these proposals are negotiable and therefore, the administration can't do them by themselves," Morales said. "The unions have to agree."
The plan Turnbull presented Friday lacked any significant revenue generating proposals, Benjamin said.
"You can balance the budget and reduce the debt tomorrow, but if you don't come up with some ways to generate revenue, you're going to come to the same problem again and again and again," he said.
St. Croix Chamber of Commerce President Noel Loftus said the private sector is willing to make sacrifices.
"The chambers are willing to talk to the companies to see if they will push incentives back. Some are willing to, but some can't, some wouldn't be able to stay open" Loftus said. "But the Industrial Development Commission has lost its way. The purpose of tax breaks is to induce business to come that would not otherwise be here, not ones that would be here anyway."
The cuts impact everyone in the territory, Loftus said.
"It's not a very pleasant moment, it's not good news for anyone, but there's no choice," he said. "You have the entire community very apprehensive. They know the problems are here, they know they have to be faced and everybody's go to cutback spending."
The business sector could make other sacrifices, according to Benjamin.
"Businesses continue to raise their prices and we are still being paid at 1993 levels," Benjamin said. "Why can't they keep 1993 prices?"
The sentiment of many in business and government is that the government workforce is too large and its payroll has to be trimmed substantially.
"Who gets fired first is the biggest question," Sen. Anne Golden said after Friday's meeting. "We do have a monster of a government and a workforce that's really too large, and it needs to be streamlined."
The unions, however, don't necessarily agree the government is too large, Morales said.
"Every department head says they are short-staffed, especially those who have to collect revenues. So if they're short-staffed, how is it that we have too many people on the payroll?" he said. "The previous administration hired people for some political agenda and not for the needs of the departments."
"That has to stop and these people have to be transferred to positions that are needed," he said.
Morales said unions may be amenable to proposals to buy out employees who are willing to leave government service.
"We have said to the government, there are a lot of people who if you put them on step and pay their retroactive wages, they will retire," he said. "That's a buyout, isn't it?"
Layoffs will likely result in social unrest because the private sector cannot afford to absorb a large amount of employees, Benjamin said.
"There's going to be more thefts, more violence, more shooting, people are just going to be desperate," he said.
Loftus said the opening of the Divi Casino, which may employ as many as 250 people, and the construction of HOVENSA's coker plant could absorb laid off government workers.
The unions feel no concessions are being made to protect employees, Morales said.
"One problem we saw is there is no plan to put government employees on their correct step and start paying them their retroactive wages," he said. "However, they are making reference to how they are going to pay vendors."
St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce President John de Jongh said Saturday, "I recognize the governor's plan requires sacrifice by all sectors as we attempt to adjust. But there is no magic in these solutions. They are all things that have been on the table for a long time. It is simply a matter of implementing them."

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