July 11, 2001 As of 6 p.m. Wednesday the Senate Finance Committee had heard five of the 23 commissioners and agency heads invited to testify on the governor's proposal to provide $47.2 million in supplemental appropriations from the General Fund for fiscal year 2001.
The other 18 government officers, most of whom had been at the Senate since the committee's scheduled 10 a.m. start, were still waiting to testify at 6 p.m. The meeting started at 11:45 a.m. with apologies from Chairwoman Alicia "Chucky" Hansen who said the committee was waiting for information "still coming in on the Wheaton Estate."
A $4 million appropriation to enter negotiations to buy the Wheaton estate and thus protect the Magens Bay watershed was among the 20-plus appropriations in the bulky bill.
The senators heard testimony from the same government officials the majority bloc members had excused from a June 15 special session saying they didn't require their testimony on the governor's bill to appropriate $100 million from projected tax revenues. Later that same day they passed the bill unanimously with the minority senators absent. The action had sent them out of the chamber in disgust. Almost all minority senators were present Wednesday.
Management and Budget Director Ira R. Mills, referring to recent "extraordinary revenue collections," said the administration's most recent FY 2001 projections indicate that $529 million will be collected in FY 2001, including projected income tax revenues. He said OMB's projected FY 2001 allotment level is now $484 million, up $54.5 million from the $429.5 set in February.
Internal Revenue Bureau Director Louis Willis, who started the ball rolling in June with his announcement along with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull of the $100 million tax "windfall" for FY 2001, continued to give the senators a cheery fiscal picture. His statement was short and sweet.
"We have collected $372 million in taxes so far this year," he said, "which is $87 million over last year at this time." Willis projected $486 million by the end of FY 2001.
"Can we sustain these revenues to realize $529 million by the end of the year?" asked Sen. David Jones. Willis reiterated, "As for my department, yes, $486 million."
The senators heard Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull's defense of the bill's $2.7 million Finance Department supplemental appropriation without blinking an eye. Turnbull commended her staff for completing 1995, 1998 and 1999 Single Audits, bringing the government in compliance with federal guidelines. She said they completed a "herculean task while working under adverse conditions" in a deteriorating building critically in need of repair.
Turnbull stressed the funds are needed "immediately" to meet "our FY 2002 audit deadline." She said, "We cannot delay. This is a requirement of the federal government." If the deadline isn't met, the territory stands to lose federal funding. The audits for 1996 and 1997 are not yet completed.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II addressed the bill's island-to-island inequities, saying, "I've been listening downstairs, and I've run up a little tote sheet, and it's way out of favor" (for St. Croix). Pointing to the $250,000 for the territorial sewage system, he said, "St. Croix needs at least $5 million for sewage repair," and asked Mills to explain. The $250,000 was for emergency maintenance only, Mills said.
Hansen also questioned a $4 million allotment for the territory's roads. "If that's $2 million for St. Croix, at the current rate for repair that would cover about eight miles of road," he said.
Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd made a bid for $2.5 million from St. John's capital improvement fund to build a desalination plant on St. John. Bernice Turnbull said the fund could sustain that.
None of the measures were voted on in the daytime meeting. Chairwoman Hansen repeatedly said the committee had to do a "markup" on them first.
After the senators took an almost two-hour recess for lunch, things got lively with a heated though jovial exchange between Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. and Attorney General Iver Stridiron about the Wheaton estate.
White maintained that the government shouldn't buy the property simply to "preserve it as an open, protected space, when that's what the Wheatons were doing, anyhow." He said there was no fear of developers buying the property and building on it, asking Property and Procurement Commissioner Marc Biggs if the purpose of the purchase would be to keep developers out, which Biggs agreed it was.
"Developers can't do anything without coming to the Legislature for permits, and this Legislature would never permit that. They'd be stuck," White said, referring to the Wheatons as the "weiners."
Stridrion repeatedly and futilely attempted to respond to White, who was directing his inquiries to him. Finally, Stridiron was able to explain a problem: "You might have a good idea," he said, "but there's just one thing there is a Table of Permitted Uses in the V.I. Code. It allows hundreds of permitted uses under an R-I (residential) zoning."
Alicia Hansen said an appraisal had not yet been done on the 218-acre Wheaton property. Biggs said an appraisal is now about 65 percent complete. Hansen, who is avid in her pursuit of the property, noted the price had risen from $5.8 to $8 million in just a few months this year, and urged action on the appropriation.
William Jowers, Magens Bay general manager, was enthusiastic about the government's acquisition of the Wheaton property. "Magens is vital to the Virgin Islands," he said, and government ownership of the Magens watershed, the Wheaton property, would protect the beach.
The meeting was expected to continue into the evening. Attending were committee members Hansen, Carlton Dowe, Norma Pickard-Samuel, Douglas Canton Jr, Donald "Ducks" Cole, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Norman Jn. Baptiste. Also attending were Sens. Hansen II, Jones, White, Lorraine Berry and Adelbert M. Bryan.