July 6, 2002 – After five weeks of unreturned telephone messages and unanswered letters, Sen. Emmett Hansen II was not surprised to learn on Saturday that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull had vetoed his Infrastructure Maintenance Act of 2001. But that doesn't mean he is not concerned.
The St. Croix legislator termed the veto "amazing that, given what's going on on this island now." He was referring the crime situation which Carnival Cruise Lines cited as its reason for canceling Frederiksted port calls by two of its largest ships. Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America subsequently canceled their calls without publicly citing specific reasons.
Hansen said he didn't see how the governor could veto a measure providing what he says is a "lockbox" sure method of providing reliable street lighting, road repair and potable water line repair.
Over the last five weeks, Hansen said, he left about "100 phone messages" at Government House. "When they're so intellectually desolate that they sat there for five weeks, and I got no response to my calls or letters, it became painfully obvious to me that it was going to be vetoed," he said. "Not because it was without merit — it was vetoed for political purposes."
The bill calls for annual funding projected at $9 million in property taxes annually — 15 percent of the total. "And the truth is, the money will come back," Hansen said, "because they'll have to hire more road and potable water repair crews, and more to install and maintain more street lights."
Hansen said he is appalled at what he sees as Turnbull's lack of understanding of basic public finances "If you take money from the people and don't give them something back, that's what's called theft," he said. The people who pay property taxes "have never gotten anything back in terms of basic services — roads, water and street lights," he said.
After months of meetings, lots of study and a bit of lobbying, Hansen succeeded on June 21 in getting his bill to fund the territory's street lighting, road repair and potable water services passed by the 24th Legislature.
Under the bill, sponsored by Hansen and Sen. Celestino A. White, 15 percent of all property taxes collected in the territory for each fiscal year would be deposited into separate District Road Funds for St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and Water Island.
Legislation enacted last year transferred responsibility for street lighting to the Water and Power Authority from the Public Works Department. The Legislature appropriated $2.8 million to WAPA to cover start-up costs for the work. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull vetoed the appropriation, but the Senate overrode his veto earlier this year.
However, Carol Burke, WAPA board chair, said last month that the utility has yet to receive "one dime" for the street lighting, while it's costing the authority $700,000 a month to maintain emergency repair service. "We are caught between the legislative and administrative branches of government. As a result of that legislation, we have lost money," she said.
WAPA announced last month that it would petition the Public Services Commission for a surcharge of $1.80 per month on customers' bills in order to fund the street lighting program. WAPA's former executive director, Joseph R. Thomas Jr., took that same proposal to the Legislature last year, where it was turned down. Hansen said as far as he knows, Glen Rothgeb, WAPA acting executive director, hasn't yet submitted the petition to the PSC.
Turnbull said in a Government House release distributed Saturday that he vetoed the measure because "it amounts to respending of monies that the Legislature has already spent, perhaps more than once."
Hansen's response was, "I don't think he knows what he is talking about, and you may quote me. It makes no sense to me. We are supposed to have dedicated funding to dedicated liabilities. It's got to be more than lip service and task forces."
Turnbull said the measure would remove "critically needed funds from the General Fund." He said in his letter to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd that "the creation of accounts for items that are now the responsibility of WAPA is a contradiction of the concept of an 'independent agency.'" He added that WAPA does not maintain accounts within the Finance Department and should not rely on the General Fund for its expenses. "It is within the purview of WAPA to raise its own revenues to carry out its duties and responsibilities," the governor said.
He said that a "more prudent" course of action would have been to "address the deficit in the current Road Fund, rather than create a new set of accounts for funds that are already committed elsewhere."
Hansen alluded to the governor's action in March when he, in effect, canceled an agreement between the Port Authority — another semi-autonomous government agency — and two major cruise lines for the construction of dock and retail facilities at Crown Bay. "You can't just pull out a rule when it suits you," Hansen said. "Yet, he still felt he could void that agreement and take $4 million from VIPA for another government department." The governor recently announced that $4 million from VIPA would be used for the Education Department.
"And what about the 700 people who are being laid off from Hovensa?" Hansen said. "These workers have requisite skills and could be used for the infrastructure work." He said he has not seen any proposals to address how these "700 heads of households" who have been laid off will be compensated. Some 600 of the layoffs this month were scheduled with completion of the new coker facility at the refinery. About a hundred others are permanent employees being furloughed in what Hovensa officials described as a cost-cutting move.
As far as WAPA's petition for the monthly $1.80 consumer surcharge, Hansen said, "You can't say on the one hand that we can't help WAPA provide those services, and then force people to absorb the $1.80 surcharge," he said. "What this says to me is that the Turnbull administration has a problem understanding money."
Hansen said he feels confident there are enough votes in the Senate to override the governor's veto. The bill passed the Rules Committee unanimously and passed the full Senate on a 13-1 vote. He said Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen was absent for the floor vote, but as she voted for it in Rules, "I anticipate her support for the override."
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