July 31, 2002 – The lieutenant governor didn't appear on Wednesday at the Senate Finance Committee's hearing on the Fiscal Year 2003 budget for his office, and one of his officials who did appear had grim news.
It was Lt. Gov. Gerard Luz James II's second failure to show before the committee, and if Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Finance chair, has her way, it will be the last.
James sent Charles Parrott, his chief of staff, as he had done on July 11, when the budget hearing for the office was originally scheduled. Hansen's response then was to postpone the hearing. On Wednesday, for the second time, Hansen said that Parrott's presence would not suffice.
"The lieutenant governor is also the commissioner of Insurance and chairman of the Banking Board, and as such he should appear before this body as the other commissioners do," Hansen said.
James had written to Hansen asking for an extension from July 11 to July 17, or "any date after the 15th," saying he said he would be unable to compile the necessary budget information before then because of hosting the annual meeting on June 25 to 30 of the National Conference of Lieutenant Governors on St. Croix.
On Tuesday, James wrote to Hansen saying Parrott would represent him on Wednesday. Hansen's response was: "We have many insurance problems in the territory, and we need to hear from the person in charge of policy. I will not accept the chief of staff."
She made it clear Wednesday that she considers the staff of the office — 10 of whom sat in the Senate chambers — competent. "But we need James," she said, noting that prior lieutenant governors have appeared at budget hearings. "Kenneth Mapp appeared, as did Derek Hodge and Julio Brady when they were lieutenant governor," she said.
Hansen said she needed to hear James's direct responses to questions. "He appears in press releases, or responds by cover of radio on the talk shows. We can't see what he is reading," she continued. "We have many insurance problems, with insurance companies being forced out of the territory … I don't want somebody else to sit here and read James's document."
Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole asked where Maryleen Thomas, the director of banking and insurance under James, was. "With the insurance crisis looming over the territory, we have issues that need to be clarified, with ridiculous prices now for insurance," he commented.
Cole expressed surprise to find that Thomas was not there, either. No excuse was offered to Hansen for her absence.
One senator suggested she might be out campaigning. Thomas is James's running mate in his bid to replace his boss as governor in the November election.
Hansen said she will give James one more chance to appear voluntarily. It that doesn't work, she said, she will subpoena him. She said she would announce a time for the next hearing after discussing the matter with her Finance Committee colleagues on Wednesday evening.
Settlement means lower property tax revenues
Tax Assessor Roy Martin, whose office falls within that of the lieutenant governor, did testify Wednesday, saying his office is in "serious trouble." He said the recent settlement of a legal challenge filed by Berne Corp. and B&B Corp. and C & M Caron Building, Twenty-One Queen's Quarter Inc., has set precedent for other litigators to follow.
The suit, settled in December of 2000, was filed by Berne and B&B in August of that year, with Caron joining the case later. The suit charged that the government was assessing commercial properties on the basis of replacement value rather than actual value, that this had resulted in inflated assessments since 1994, and that the owners had effectively been denied a fair appeal hearing.
The parties agreed to having the District Court name an independent "special master" to review the procedures and process of commercial property assessment. (See "Berne tax assessment case settled".) Under the mandate, Martin said Wednesday, the special master must see that the office meets certain requirements before it can appraise commercial properties. "These mandates require funding," Martin said.
The terms of the settlement were "sealed" and have not been made public, he said.
He said two commercial property owners' cases have been settled at between $300,000 and $400,000, and another 10 cases are pending. Asked by Hansen if this was a government payout from his office, Martin said, "No, it would be a credit."
"That's still the same thing isn't it?" Hansen persisted. "It's money out of the government's pocket." To this Martin agreed.
He said there are about 1,500 commercial property owners in the territory. "Imagine crediting all of those," Hansen remarked.
Martin also said there are about 34,000 residential property taxpayers — some 20,000 on St. Thomas; 1,600 on St. John and 12,300 on St. Croix. He said there are "no residential cases yet" challenging the basis for those assessments.
Responding to questioning by Cole, Martin said the expected commercial property tax revenues under the old procedure would have been between $9 million and $10 million this year. Under the court order, he said, it could be $7 million.
In requesting that the committee approve the governor's recommended $727,472 for his office, Martin said since his office brings in about $70 million yearly that goes into the General Fund, "we should not have to beg for money in order to become compliant with the court decree."
The committee was scheduled to hear budget testimony from the Crucian Christmas Festival and updates from the St. Thomas marine industry and the St. Thomas Swimming Association Wednesday night.
Committee members attending Wednesday's daytime session were Sens. Cole, Carlton Dowe, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Hansen and Norma Pickard-Samuel. Sens. Douglas Canton Jr. and Norman Jn Baptiste were absent. Non-committee member Celestino A. White Sr. also attended.
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