July 10, 2005 — Senate hearings often attract more officials and testifiers than community members. But that was not the case last Tuesday and Wednesday as hearings concerning reform of the Government Employees Retirement System were held on St. Thomas and St. Croix, where community members were out in force. Also unusual was the fact the general public seemed pleased at what the Senate was doing.
They might have not been pleased to hear how rickety the financial structure of GERS was, but most of them already knew that anyway. They were glad senators were focusing on a possible solution to the mess.
The Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Protection was taking the testimony. Under discussion specifically was the Retirement System Reform Act of 2005.
Community members said that the system needed to be saved. The senators commented that it would not be easy.
The system needs a huge investment of cash, and nobody seems sure where that will come from.
While GERS affairs were the topic du jour, education affairs got pushed back once again. The second scheduled meeting of a Committee of the Whole to discuss federal concerns about how the V.I. government was handling education funds was cancelled.
No meetings scheduled.
Tuesday, July, 5
In the first GERS meeting held in St. Thomas, the focus was on the financial plight of the system.
Hugo Dennis, state president of the V.I. chapter of AARP, said, "The GERS is in serious financial trouble and will collapse in less than nine years if nothing is done."
(See "GERS Debt Approaching $1 Billion Mark").
Wednesday, July 6
The following day the Government Operations Committee moved to St. Croix for an evening meeting. Much of what was said the day before was repeated, however, officials on Wednesday seemed to be focusing on possible solutions. Under discussion were raising contributions, improving investments and possibly floating government bonds. (See "Hearing Reaches No Consensus on Fixing GERS").
Also pointed out at this meeting was the status of the GERS governing board. The only currently appointed member is the board's chairman, Carver Farrow, and he was not able to make the hearing on St. Croix because of illness.
Marvin Pickering, senior vice president and chief financial officer of V.I. Rum Industries Ltd., and the vice chairman presented the opening statement for the board.
Sen. Liston Davis called the board a "lame duck board." However, Pickering said on Friday that legally the board members are allowed to serve until a replacement is appointed. Even with the members serving expired terms, the board is short one person.
Pickering had no comment about why the governor had not filled the position nor re-appointed the present board members.
The reform act would extend board members' terms from three to five years and also raise their meeting stipend from $50 to $75 per meeting.
Wednesday, July 6; St. Thomas
The Committee on Rules and the Judiciary approved and reported out a bill to provide for the transfer of Water Island real estate to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, to be included in the authority's home ownership program. Sen. Celestino White Sr., the bill's sponsor, noted that in addition to the approximately 60 acres to be transferred to VIFHA, a land study would be conducted on the remaining 140 acres to determine the best uses for that property.
Other bills passed and reported out to the Senate floor were one to amend the Low and Moderate Income Affordable Housing Act of 1990 (See "Senators Approve Changes to Cut Low-Income Housing Costs"); one to revise certain provisions of the Economic Development Program (See "EDC Reform Bill Clears Committee"); and one to enact the Small Business Incubators Enterprise Act (See "Bill to Help Small Businesses Receives Unanimous Approval in Committee").
According to a Senate press release, the committee also sent to the full Senate the nominations of Robert OConnor Jr. to the V.I. Port Authority Board; Gerville Larsen to the V.I. Historic Preservation Commission for the St. Croix district; and Robert Moron to the V.I. Historic Preservation Commission for the St. Thomas-St. John district.
A bill introduced by Senate President Lorraine Berry to prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace was held by the senators for 30 days. Dr. Iris Kern, executive director of the Safety Zone, said she "unequivocally" supported the measure but noted that the legislation must be enforced vigorously and consistently when enacted into law.
For those who want more depth than offered here at the Synopsis, proceedings of the V.I. Senate will now be broadcast live over the Internet through the Web site affiliated with WIUJ-Radio (102.9-FM).
On Tuesday, WIUJ general manager Leo Moron said the launching of the station's live webcasts was the latest technological advance for the station, known for its gavel-to-gavel coverage of Senate proceedings.
The station launched its Web site at www.wiuj.com.
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