Sept. 18, 2002 St. Croix trash haulers were back on the job Wednesday after a two-day work stoppage stemming from the Public Works Department's failure to pay for collection services since the end of July.
The Senate Finance Committee, in response to earlier talks of an impending strike, voted on Tuesday for a plan to come up with the cash needed to keep mounds of garbage around the island from growing.
The committee's strategy turned out to be the same one it had rejected on Sept. 4 — thus fueling the work stoppage: an appropriation transfer of almost $1 million from a utilities fund within Public Works to another fund that would facilitate making payments to the St. Croix and St. Thomas haulers.
On Sept. 4, Sen. Alicia Hansen, the committee chair, and Sen. Norma Pickard-Samuel voted against DPW's request for the funds transfer after finding that at least part of the money in the utilities fund was earmarked for street light repairs. Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Carlton Dowe voted in favor of the motion, and Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole abstained.
"I made a motion to approve [the transfer] then, and I don't regret it," Dowe said Tuesday, according to The Avis. "It was a personal decision as to whether or not we're going to do what is happening now and allow the garbage to pile up. It was right two weeks ago, and it's right today."
The 24th Legislature transferred responsibility for the territory's street light maintenance from Public Works to the Water and Power Authority last year. However, much needed maintenance work has gone undone, as money appropriated to help start up the initiative has yet to be released.
Hansen said the Finance Committee met extensively with DPW officials in efforts to find alternative funding for the garbage haulers but concluded that the only solution was to take $1 million from the utilities fund.
"Everyone in this community knows we have a crisis with street lighting," Hansen said.
"Darkness breeds crime. But we agreed that the $1 million will not affect the street lighting funding."
Hansen, along with Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull and Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, assured the garbage haulers their checks will be cut by Friday.
She said the funding was upped by more than $80,000 to guard against a shortfall next year.
Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood said the lag in payments came about because only $4.9 million of the $6.4 million DPW requested last year to cover trash collection costs was allotted.
Even after it was apparent the haulers could expect payment this week, there was a question as to whether they would return to work. The government owes the island's four contracted trash collection companies an accumulated debt of around $775,000 for services in years past.
Fergutrax owner Dwayne Fergus, who oversees collections at the Anguilla landfill, is owed the bulk of that debt — $649,000 for services since 2000.
Fergus said he wants a note "with some good signatures" from government officials that would prove to tax collectors and those he owes that the money is on its way.
Gary Thomas, owner of Paradise Waste, pointed out that even though the government owes some of them money from as much as six years ago, the companies get no interest or tax breaks on the debt. In contrast, he noted, "Whenever the haulers owe the V.I. government money, they are assessed penalties and interest."
James Bates of Bates Trucking told the committee the haulers were prepared to go back on the job Wednesday — conditionally. "We agree to go back to work with the money you paid us here today," he said. But, he added, by the end of September, they expect to see another Senate committee session that will spell out when the old debts will be paid.
Lloyd Daniel, owner of Dan's Trucking, stressed that the haulers' strike was not politically motivated. "We're not political," he said. "We would like to think our purpose is trash collecting."
Hansen pledged her commitment to come up with money to clear up the debt, noting that she has some ideas. "I already think in my mind where it can come from, but we'll have to analyze it well," she said, adding, "I don't see another dime coming from within Public Works."
Publisher's note : Like the St. John Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.