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Wednesday, February 8, 2023


Nov. 8, 2001 – On the third and final day of its current session, the Legislature appropriated $4.4 million Thursday from the Anti-litter and Beautification Fund for the Public Works Department to repair and maintain the territory's waste disposal systems, approved a lease for a veterans center and increased unemployment benefits.
Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood has stated it would cost about $30 million to overhaul the sewage treatment facilities on St. Croix alone.
Callwood appeared with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull before U.S. District Judge Thomas Moore in October in a contempt-of-court hearing. He told the judge what progress the V.I. government was making to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and pumping stations in the territory.
Moore scheduled the hearing after the V.I. government failed to show progress in bringing the facilities into compliance with federal Environmental Protection Agency standards, which the government is under court order to do.
"I'm going to do all I can. I'm going to have to do some micromanaging," Turnbull told the judge as he pledged to bring the sewage facilities up to standards. "I told my people, 'The judge is right.' When you're wrong, you have to admit you're wrong."
EPA attorney Donald Frankel said he believed the allocation of $4.4 million was a major step forward, but he noted that it came about only after Moore had scheduled the contempt-of-court hearing.
Enthusiastic in their endorsement of the $4.4 million allocation Thursday, senators made no mention of the $30 million figure. The bill, proposed by Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd at the request of the governor, states that it would satisfy the District Court order stipulation.
"Something is extremely wrong when the court orders the governor to do something that is common sense," Liburd said. "This is embarrassing for our people." Liburd was still presiding over the Senate into the night Thursday and unavailable for comment.
Lease of V.I. Hotel property
Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel's legislation to lease the former V.I. Hilton/Virgin Isles Hotel property on St. Thomas for use as a multipurpose veterans center was approved, but not without lively debate.
The measure had been in hot water since its inception earlier this year, most recently because of Pickard-Samuel's selection of her husband, Gilbert Samuel, to head the corporation which would manage the veterans center. Pickard-Samuel introduced the legislation Thursday by announcing that her husband had resigned from the position in October, although she produced no documentation of the resignation. "We have my husband out of the mix now," she said.
At hearings on the bill, Pickard-Samuel had not mentioned that her husband, a veteran, was to head the corporation. When the fact became known, it met a barrage of news media criticism calling it a conflict of interest and questioning her honesty. Nonetheless, the Rules Committee approved the legislation and passed it to the full Senate.
The legislation calls for a $300,000 grant from the interest earned on bond proceeds to Veterans Resources and Development Inc., which would build and manage the center. The money is to cover architectural services, plans and specifications, construction, labor, materials and other expenses. It doesn't stipulate who would head the corporation.
Earlier this year, Pickard-Samuel traveled to Washington, D.C., to discuss the matter with the national Veterans Affairs Office, after which she received criticism in the media about spending taxpayers' money on the trip. She said at the time that her efforts would be rewarded and that it was a fruitful trip.
Until Pickard-Samuel's proposal emerged, the government had shown little interest in rehabilitating the property, which it was given three years ago. Since Hurricane Hugo, the hillside complex west of downtown, once the island's most prestigious resort, has been a haven for squatters and a graveyard for abandoned vehicles.
Gov. Roy Schneider at one point touted it as future affordable housing, and there was periodic interest in converting it into a training facility for vocational education, the hospitality industry and other purposes. But no effort had been made to rehabilitate the property since 1989.
What was left of the V.I. Hotel was deeded to the government on Dec. 31, 1998, by the Maribe Hotel Corp., the consortium that owned the derelict Upper John Dunkoe property, after the University of the Virgin Islands turned down a similar offer. The owners stipulated that the onetime showplace of the territory's new high-profile tourism industry be used for a public purpose. The owners had been trying since Hurricane Hugo to unload the ruined resort and deal with tax and insurance issues; they reportedly had most recently had it on the market for $4 million, with no takers.
Although all senators lauded the intent of the bill Thursday, some wondered about its legality.
Sen. Lorraine Berry introduced a "memorandum of law" which she had asked Yvonne Tharpes, the legislature's legal counsel, to prepare. Berry questioned the scope of the authority granted to the governor in leasing the property. She also wondered about the authority of the veterans center development corporation to float bonds, responsibility for the obligations incurred in establishing the center, and whether a bidding process would be required for the corporation to contract with the investors.
Tharpes' opinion basically said the bill was limited in scope. She said if the governor exercises the authority granted him in the bill, he must do so in accordance with conditions set forth in the bill. She said if the bill is intended to be mandatory, constitutional questions may surface.
The bill doesn't involve financing of the project, Tharpes said; it merely provides a grant to the corporation to carry out a public purpose. It doesn't authorize the government to issue bonds, nor does it delegate authority to the corporation to issue bonds.
The bill passed 12-3 with Sens. Berry, Roosevelt David and Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg casting the negative votes.
Cut in jobless contributions, hike in benefits
A bill to amend the Unemployment Insurance Fund was passed, along with an amendment increasing unemployment benefits. The bill addresses the fact that the government has an excess of about $60 million in the fund.
There have been calls for years for the government to change the way in which employers pay into the fund. The criticisms have come both from local business leaders and from the federal government, which acts as custodian of the fund.
In every jurisdiction nationwide, employers are required to pay a percentage of their workers' salaries into the fund in order to cover benefits to workers who are laid off. The percentage for a given business is supposed to be based on the demands previously placed on the fund by that employer's workers. But in the Virgin Islands the system has been marked by wide swings in the level of contributions required of employers — and, in general, by overly high contributions compared to payout demands.
Pickard-Samuel has been working with the Labor Department to reduce the amount of unemployment taxes employers pay into the fund. At the same time, she plans to amend the bill to levy a surcharge on them of 0.1 percent of wages paid. That money would filter through the insurance fund but would remain at the disposal of the local government for use in computer and Internet services training programs. That, she said, translates into retraining for laid-off workers.
The bill passed 14-1, with Sen. David Jones absent for the vote.
Pickard-Samuel and all of the other majority senators supported an amendment to the bill which would increase the weekly unemployment compensation benefit paid to eligible claimants by $200 weekly. The benefits would last through Jan. 30, 2002, and be retroactive to Se
pt. 11, 2001. The bill was passed 14-1, with Sen. Vargrave Richards not voting.
The session, which was scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., got under way at 11:40 a.m. Liburd declared the body would "go right through" until finished. At 9 p.m. Thursday, still on the agenda were more than 30 amendments to be heard, along with at least eight bills and two lease agreements.

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