August 12, 2005 – After a nine-hour regular session Friday, senators passed six bills — and countless amendments — for low-income housing benefits, Community Development Block Grant projects and the ratification of contracts for vendor services left unpaid by the government.
Amendments made to the Low Income Housing Act of 1990 to afford greater benefits to the home owner, government and subcontractors sailed through the Legislature without discussion. These measures seek to:
– Provide an exemption for low-income housing residents on recording fees for documents that must be filed when new affordable housing units are being built;
– Pass on to subcontractors any tax benefits that go to the developers of low-income housing units;
– Eliminate some taxes on developers and housing residents if and when they convert affordable housing rental units to home ownership; and
– Allow additional exemptions on property taxes for residents who are considered low income.
Changes made to shift around money for projects under the $1.9 million Community Development Block Grant were also approved, providing extra funds for the homeless, the revamping of recreational facilities on St. Croix and restoring buildings for the American Legion.
Senators were distressed that more federal money has not been made available to the V.I. for such capital projects. They stated that the territory should be taken more seriously by the U.S. government. "We're on the lowest rung of the ladder for them," Sen. Roosevelt C. David said. "There's no way, with all the billions of dollars being spent on the war in Iraq, that more money couldn't be sent our way for some of these important things."
More frustration surfaced with the approval of a bill asking the Legislature to expend $65,000 of its own budget to establish an FM microwave link between the Senate building and Blue Mountain on St. Croix. "This bill makes sure that there is reliable, uninterrupted and uncensored Legislative access for the residents of St. Croix, who want to know what's going on in the Senate," said Sen. Usie R. Richards.
While most senators believed it was appropriate to have the item added to the 2006 budget that will go to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, Sen. Neville James argued that Turnbull didn't have to see the measure for the money to be appropriated.
"If we pass this and send it to him for approval, all he will do is laugh at us because we have the power to appropriate the money on our own. We don't have to ask his permission to use $65,000 of our own budget — it's the Legislature's money. We have the power to decide where it's going to go."
Sen. Shawn Michael Malone pointed out to James that in either situation, Turnbull would have to be notified about all financial decisions. "The purpose of this bill is to enable the people of St. Croix to have access to Legislative sessions as soon as possible," he said. "Let's not delay any more in taking action with this."
James was the only senator not in favor of the bill, which passed without further discussion.
Controversy also engulfed legislation designed to pay off debt incurred by the government to vendors who provided services through the Department of Property and Procurement. Some senators opposed the bill because they believed it gives the executive branch an excuse not to pay its bills.
"What should happen is, instead of us passing this measure, these organizations should go through the court system and sue the government for the money that they're owed," Sen. Ronald Russell said. "The governor shouldn't pass things like this onto us. Are we supposed to take care of things every time he can't pay off his contracts?"
Sens. Craig Barshinger and Lorraine L. Berry were also irked by the executive branch's tactics. "It's embarrassing that the name of the V.I. is all over the states because we can't pay our bills," Berry said.
"This bill basically says to us, no one's going to be held accountable; the court system will be side-stepped; and business will be conducted as usual in the Virgin Islands," Barshinger said.
However, despite the strong opposition, only two senators voted against the bill, allowing contracts for V.I. Employee Benefit Consultants Inc., Aon Consulting Inc. and Central Air Inc. to be sent to Turnbull for approval.
Senators also approved the long-awaited payment from the government to the Anne Carlsen Center for Children in North Dakota for healthcare being provided to two St. Thomas students since July of 2002.
Many tangential amendments made to the bill were also approved, including a law prohibiting the Water and Power Authority from charging any fee for the maintenance or installation of streetlights around the territory. "There is already a Street Lighting Fund, consisting of four separate accounts, that provides money for this purpose," said Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the amendment's sponsor. "WAPA is making our residents pay more money when they don't have to. Some of them don't even have street lights outside their homes. That's not fair."
Donastorg added that there is also a provision in the V.I. Code which allows for 2 percent of property taxes collected on each island to go toward the installation of street lights.
Senators also unanimously passed a bill that allows for two government-access channels in the territory one on St. Thomas and one on St. Croix.
Prior to the consideration of bills, senators filled the first three morning hours passing resolutions to honor the territory's Rotary Clubs for their decades of hard work, as well as WSTA newsman Lee Carle for his commitment to journalism within the territory.
Dressed in a navy blue suit, Carle or Leo Anthony Carlo sat patiently and laughed as senators reminisced over moments shared with him during the past 50 years. "I first met Lee in the '60s, when we had a club down here called the Fallen Angel," Sen. Liston Davis said. "He was the M.C., and we used to hang out there every Saturday night. I consider him the best of the best, our island's first eyewitness news reporter whether or not his story was accurate."
Echoing Davis' good-natured wisecracks, many senators also took a few jabs at Carle. "The one person you don't want to say anything against is the one who holds the microphone at the radio station," Donastorg joked. "But at the end of the day, this man is like a public servant. I'm surprised he doesn't own WSTA, for all the hard work and commitment he put into it."
Carle's commitment to providing the news was a big theme throughout the proceedings. Senators remembered how Carle kept broadcasting the news throughout Hurricane Hugo, even when all the power was out. Their point was, Virgin Islanders could always count on him.
A video was also played during the session, broadcasting offers of congratulations from Carle's daughter, granddaughter and boss at WSTA.
"It's been a great experience, doing what I do," Carle said, thanking senators. "You know, listening to you saying those things about me, I've been sitting there and wondering, 'Who are they talking about?' But I'm 75 years old, and I'm still going strong. I'm happy to be a part of this community and everyone's lives."
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