Dec. 14, 2005 — After hours of questioning senators at a Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting this week approved the nominations of five individuals to various government boards and commissions.
Focusing on the Government Employees Retirement System's Reform Bill, signed into law by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in September, senators asked GERS board nominee Marvin Pickering why the board objected to the bill when it was before the Senate two months ago.
Pickering said the board submitted a reform bill to Turnbull more than a year ago, and asked him to submit it to the Legislature for consideration. However, Pickering said the bill recently signed into law was not the one submitted by the GERS board to Turnbull.
Pickering added that the second bill did not deal with the $921 million unfunded liability. Pickering said to take care of the debt, the government would have to put a "large infusion of cash" into the system, or else GERS will collapse within the next ten years.
When asked by Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. if the GERS investment portfolio is doing well, Pickering said the system has seen an 11 to14 percent return on investments within the past fiscal year. "However, that doesn't really help us when we have to liquidate these earnings to keep up with our obligations," Pickering added.
He also said that GERS supports the idea of a pension obligation bond to help with paying for the unfounded liability, and is currently putting together a proposal to present to the Legislature. The proposal will also address other board concerns, such as provisions in the new law relating to elections of board members, the regulation of contribution rates for judges, and the treatment of employees who are exempt employees.
Senators told Pickering that GERS should "tell the truth about how they feel" the next time the board has a bill before the Legislature.
Verne Callwood, nominated for his first term on the V.I. Tax Review Board, was further questioned about his feelings on the ongoing property tax re-valuation project presently conducted by the Lt. Gov.'s office.
"This really is a big issue for us locally — most especially in St. John," Sen. Craig W. Barshinger said. "The 1936 property tax laws forces us to keep property taxes at the same rate, and that is raising the value of some property five or six times more than what it's worth — it's forcing people to give up their homes."
Barshinger said the Tax Review Board should try to "get Congress to realize that the people should set their own property tax rates."
Callwood, a former tax assessor, said he is not entirely familiar with the way the current re-valuation project is going. However, he said he is aware that local property is being assessed according to a market value, instead of replacement cost, which would make it difficult to assess the value of residential property.
Callwood said he would have to "wait and see" if the new method is effective.
"But what happens when there is a $1 million mansion located next to a little shack," Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone asked Callwood.
"That's the problem with the market-method," Callwood responded. "That's something the board would have to look at."
Sen. Ronald Russell asked Callwood whether serving on the board would be a conflict of interest since Callwood worked with Roy L. Martin, the current tax assessor, during his tenure as Tax Assessor in the mid-'90's.
Russell said Callwood would also have a conflict if he were involved in cases filed when he was the tax assessor.
Callwood said he would reccuse himself from such cases, and would not be influenced by Martin's opinion.
Up for a position on the V.I. Waste Management Authority Board, J. Brion Morrisette was the only nominee not to be unanimously approved on Tuesday.
Sen. Usie R. Richards said he could not vote for Morrisette because he did not support the creation of the Waste Management Authority in the first place.
Richards also did not agree with statements made by Morrisette regarding the WMA's need for more funding for operations. Morrisette explained to Richards that both Turnbull and the Legislature had cut the authority's $36 million budget request for 2005, leaving the WMA more than $10 million short.
Richards said the WMA was given money by the Public Finance Authority which was not properly expended.
Morrisette was also questioned on his plans for establishing a recycling program in the V.I. Morrisette said he talked to May Adams-Cornwall, WMA's executive director, who said the authority is not mandated to make recycling a requirement for local residents.
He explained that Adams-Cornwall also said the collection of recyclables by the WMA would not be practical, given St. Thomas' hilly terrain.
Morrisette said he would work with Cornwall to partner with private businesses already involved in recycling.
Also approved at Tuesday's meeting were June A. Adams and Beverly Chongasing, both up for re-nomination to the Hospitals and Health Facilities Governing Board.
The nominees will go on to the full Senate for approval Thursday.
Present at Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Barshinger, Liston Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Malone, Terrence "Postive" Nelson, Richards, Russell, and Celestino A. White Sr.
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