July 9, 2003 – Members of the St. Croix community who turned out for a town meeting on the territory's fiscal crisis Tuesday night voiced strong opposition to the government borrowing up to $235 million to meet expenses and undertake capital improvement projects.
More than 60 people, including representatives of such community groups as Generation Now!, the V.I. Parent-Teacher Association, Fisherman's United and Farmers In Action, attended the meeting, held at the Curriculum Center. Sponsored by Sens. Louis Hill, Luther Renee and Ronald Russell, its purpose was to gather input from the public on the issues of borrowing, taxes and capital improvement projects.
The three senators have scheduled a similar town meeting on St. Thomas, set for Friday night at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel.
Kevin Williams of Generation Now! stated: "We do not support borrowing that seeks to cover up the mistakes and mismanagement. The people must stand up, and the senators must listen to the voice of the people." He urged repeal of the "double-dipping law" which allows retirees to return to government service by working on a contractual basis. The practice "doesn't give a chance for young people to come back and contribute to the future of the Virgin Islands," he said.
Susan Herzog of Carambola Beach Resort said: "We all continue to the same thing and expect different results. Why keep borrowing, only to borrow again? This is not a proactive society; we wait until the decision is made, and then we speak out. Borrowing is just an analgesic, and we don't need any more anesthesia."
Several attendees expressed their disappointment that other senators, especially those of the St. Croix district, were not present.
Ira Hobson, president of V.I. PTA, stated, referring to the members of the 25th Legislature: I think there is a division between the Democrats, because there are five [Democrats] on St. Croix, and it is obvious that they are not here [all] tonight."
Renee and Russell, from St. Croix, and Louis, from the St. Thomas-St. John district, all are members of the Senate's Democratic majority. The other Democratic senators in the St. Croix district are Senate President David Jones, majority leader Douglas Canton Jr., and Emmett Hansen II.
Eurman Fahie commented on the lack of attendance and the senators' need to respond to the people's wishes. "The audience shows that our people are complacent," he said. "This place should be standing room only." And, he said, "the senators need to listen to the people and hold more town meetings." Darryl Miller similarly encouraged all senators to utilize town meetings — before and after the fact.
Former senator Virdin Brown, a member of the Independent Citizens Movement, said he was disappointed that the meeting was not an official meeting of the Legislature. He was concerned, since the other senators failed to appear, as to what impact the proceedings would have on the final vote on borrowing $235 million. "The people are distraught and distressed," he stated.
The bill submitted by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull seeking authorization for the government to float another $235 in bonds is one of six measures the governor proposed in May to address the territory's fiscal crisis. The Senate has acted on the other five measures, including approving some new tax measures and rejecting others. The borrowing bill is to be taken up by the Rules Committee on Friday morning. There have been reports that it could be considered by the full Senate next week.
Many of Tuesday night's attendees said they appreciated the chance to air their concerns before the senators but lamented the continuing lack of economic progress on St. Croix. Many expressed support for projects to stimulate the economy and improve the quality of life on their island.
"It is a good thing for us to be able to come here and voice our opinion," Eusebio Christian said. Citing what he termed ;the swift response of the Legislature and the governor to Yacht Haven redevelopment plans on St. Thomas, he said: "The Christiansted bypass has been on the back burner since 1976, but when St. Thomas wants something, they break ground the next day."
The governor called a special session of the Legislature in May and urged the lawmakers to ratify an agreement to lease filled and submerged lands and to approve a Coastal Zone Management permit for the hotel and marina redevelopment project, which they did.
Kendall Petersen of Farmers in Action stated that the establishment of an agriculture industry would positively affect the health and the economy of the island. "St. Croix was the bread basket of the Caribbean 40 years ago," he said, "and since the government turned away from agriculture, the people have been suffering."
If money is to be borrowed, Sheila Scullion said, "the roads need to be fixed." She also urged the senators to "help fight the battle for the [traditional] medical school, and also establish an alternative medical school that will focus on herbology and alternative medicine."
Government House indicated recently that separate bids to establish a traditional medical school and a school of osteopathic medicine in the territory are under consideration.
A few people supported limited borrowing — with stringent controls.
Cathleen McMannus, a local disk jockey, compared the government to her "island car." "Every time my car stops, I have to pull out the cables and give it a jump start," she said. "I may have to borrow money to get a new one, but I won't borrow much; the new blouse will have to be passed over, and I will have to brown bag my lunch every day."
Friday's town meeting on St. Thomas will take place at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel, from 6 to 9 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend. For more information, call 693-3523 or 693-3616.
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