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Thursday, July 25, 2024


Aug. 4, 2003 – Gov. Charles W. Turnbull signed several bills into law over the weekend, but a measure transferring the collection of real property taxes from the Finance Department to the Internal Revenue Bureau and Sen. Emmett Hansen's Infrastructure Act of 2003 both bit the dust under his veto pen.
However, those vetoes could be short-lived, as both measures passed the Senate with 13 affirmative votes. It takes 10 to override a veto.
Sen. Louis Hill, one of the property-tax bill sponsors, took sharp issue with Turnbull's action. "I believe it is the right thing to do," he said of giving the collecting job to the IRB. "The Department of Finance is either unable, unwilling or whatever to collect the $80 million in delinquent taxes."
Hill noted that senators had discussed the matter with Louis Willis, the IRB director. The bureau "has a $9 million computer system that would allow it the ability to very efficiently collect those taxes," Hill said. "That's why we pursued this, and Willis has stated this on the floor on the Legislature. That's why Sen. Dowe and I pursued this earlier this year."
Further, Hill said, "we also proposed that the Tax Assessor's Office be moved from the Lieutenant Governor's Office to the BIR. In fact, one should not come without the other. Both should be transferred. The Finance Department manages the government's money; it is not a collection agency."
Hill said he would consult with his colleagues to "see what our next option is."
Support for the bill in the Senate crossed majority-minority lines. Hill, Dowe and Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. were the main sponsors, with Sens. Lorraine Berry, Douglas Canton Jr., Hansen, Norman Jn Baptiste, David Jones, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Shawn-Michael Malone and Usie Richards as co-sponsors. Dowe, Jn Baptiste, Richards and White are members of the minority; the others are members of the Democratic majority.
The measure was passed July 15 on a 13-2 vote with Sens. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Ronald Russell, both Democrats, voting "no" and in sharp disagreement with the change. Both called the transfer of responsibility a "dangerous" step which could result in residents losing their property because of differences in enforcement powers between Finance and the IRB. Donastorg said whereas Finance can attach liens to property, Internal Revenue can confiscate it outright.
Donastorg said it was a "historic day when there is no debate on a major property tax issue, and no debate on major legislation which could cause people to lose their houses." Income tax and property tax functions "should not be commingled," he warned.
Turnbull said nothing about those concerns in his veto message. He told Senate President Jones that while the move might have "some advantages," the timing was wrong.
"Now is not the appropriate time to make such a drastic change," the governor wrote, "especially when the issue of assessing property tax values is before the courts." District Judge Thomas K. Moore halted property tax collections earlier this year until reform of the system, including an equitable assessment procedure, is in place.
Turnbull continued in his letter to Jones: "Although the bill requires the transfer to take place one year from the enactment of the act, we do not know how long the government will be tied up in litigation, or the outcome of such litigation." Meantime, he said, the Tax Assessor's Office in conjunction with the Finance Department "has begun to implement measures to address the issues raised by the District Court."
To transfer the levying and collection of real property taxes before the court case has been resolved might jeopardize our position," he said.
The governor emphasized that "there are too many variables which may hinder a smooth transition," and he chastised the Senate for its "piecemeal approach to resolving issues." He suggested that once the court has made a decision, the heads of the agencies involved get together to determine the best way to collect property taxes.
Hill expressed mild incredulity at Turnbull's comments. "The legislation clearly states the transfer wouldn't happen until a year after passage of the bill," he said, adding that he expects the court case issues "to be resolved within a year."
Hill also said Donastorg's objection "hasn't much basis. Property tax is a separate function from income taxes. The BIR also collects excise taxes; it doesn't use its federal mandate for those. I don't think they'll be mixed; it's a purely local issue."
Turnbull has vetoed Hansen's infrastructure bill before, rejecting what was then called the "2001 Act" in 2002. Even though 13 of Hansen's colleagues had approved that measure, the senator was unable to muster the necessary 10 votes to override that first veto.
The now slightly altered bill calls for 6 percent of property tax revenues to be divided into separate funds for street lights, potable water distribution and road maintenance. The original measure called for setting aside 15 percent of the revenues. The current act was approved on a 14-1 vote on July 15, with Donastorg casting the lone "no" vote.
Hansen was clearly upset Monday. "I don't know what to say that I haven't already said," he fumed. "It's inconceivable to me that this man [the governor] cannot see how beneficial this would be. It's been clearly demonstrated that this bill would put people to work."
Although he has called and written to the governor repeatedly about the bill, Hansen said Monday, Turnbull "has never responded."
Hansen believes that this time around he has the necessary override votes. The measure divides the territory into four geographic sectors — St. Thomas, St. Croix. St. John and Water Island. For each sector, 2 percent of that area's property taxes would go into each of the three funds — for roads, lighting and water service.
Bills signed into law
The governor approved a bill that repeals legislation enacted last year allowing the Board of Medical Examiners to waive examination requirements for the licensing of physicians under certain conditions. The repeal was approved unanimously in the Senate's July 15 session.
He also approved a safety bill addressing bicycles, skateboards and other non-motorized conveyances. The new law requires riders to wear helmets at all times, makes it illegal for children under 12 to ride outside residential areas, and sets a top speed of 25 mph for riders, except in racing competitions.
Turnbull also approved but line-item vetoed in two places a bill earmarking 25 percent of revenues generated by games operated under contract to the V.I. Lottery — Powerball, Caribbean Lottery games and video lottery terminal operations — for the V.I. Education Initiative Fund.
The bill also specifies that no more than 75 percent of the territory's revenues from the contracted games may be used to satisfy the V.I. Lottery's delinquent obligations. The V.I. Lottery is millions of dollars in arrears in payments due the government.
One section the governor vetoed appropriated $119,000 to the Housing Parks and Recreation Department to hire personnel for children's programs at government facilities. It also allocated $6,000 to the Housing Finance Authority without specifying what the funding was for.
Turnbull said that although the appropriations were for "good causes," the budget cannot sustain the expense. Personnel services should never be funded via a "one-time appropriation," he said, because they are recurring costs.
The other section vetoed would have allowed children to enter kindergarten at an earlier age. He suggested that the senators allow the "educational system" make such
decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Turnbull also vetoed an amendment by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. which would have eliminated earlier legislation prohibiting the inspection and registration of vehicles such as safari buses with more than 20-passenger capacity. This amendment passed the Senate with 13 votes, which could auger well for a future override.

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