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Small Claims Bill Attracts Host of Amendments from Senators

June 28, 2006 – Senators spent more than five hours during Tuesday's full session adding amendments to a bill increasing the cap on claims filed in Small Claims court from $5,000 to $10,000. Although none of the amendments were germane to the bill, many appropriated funding for various projects and organizations while others made a myriad of changes to the V.I. Code.
While some senators questioned why various appropriations were being made prior to the start of budget hearings – which begin Thursday – a majority of the amendments were unanimously approved, along with the entire small claims bill.
Some amendments, however, did spark debate within the Legislature – including an amendment which appropriates $1.04 million from the General Fund to the East End Medical Corporation for personnel services, capital outlay, fringe benefits, supplies, equipment, employer contributions to the Government Employee's Retirement System and "other services and charges."
While many senators initially opposed the measure, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the amendment's sponsor, said the funding is needed in order for the organization to "stay afloat."
"They're really suffering," Donastorg explained. "Some of the employees may even have to go home. And on top of that, there are 25 to 50 seniors sitting out there in the mall everyday waiting for medical attention. If this center shuts down, what are we going to tell them?"
Despite Donastorg's statements, however, Sen. Usie R. Richards stated that the organization would "not be getting another dime" until representatives from East End appear before the Senate to explain "where their money has been going."
Richards explained that East End – whose budget is primarily funded through federal grants – has consistently "mismanaged its finances," which has "caused the federal government to turn down" its most recent grant application.
"The last time they were before the Senate, representatives from the clinic said they had applied to the federal government for a grant extension, which was supposed to span four or five months," Richards said. "It's been more than four or five months since we last saw them, so we can assume that the grant application has been turned down and they're now coming to the Legislature for help."
Adding that he would not "support mismanagement and corruption," Richards, along with Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste and Terrence "Positive" Nelson, voted against the amendment, while Sens. Lorraine L. Berry, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Donastorg, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Ronald E. Russell and Celestino A. White Sr. voted in favor.
Another amendment to the small claims bill seeks to designate how $1.75 million appropriated to Public Works in a recent supplemental budget should be spent. The budget, which was signed into law by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in May, appropriated $2 million to the department for various road repairs.
"The commissioner of Public Works [George W. Phillips] has been telling everyone that he would be using the entire $2 million to repair roads on St. Thomas because we cut his supplemental budget appropriation from $4 million to $2 million," Richards explained. "This is why we decided to draft this amendment. We're not appropriating any money – we're just making sure what was already appropriated is spent on critical road projects on St. Croix."
Of the $2 million appropriated in the budget: $200,000 will go toward road repairs on Constitution Hill, Sion Farm; $250,000 for roads in Estate Glynn; $275,000 for four roads in Estate Whim; and $250,000 for three roads in Campo Rico.
The amendment was unanimously approved.
Senators also objected to an amendment appropriating $1.5 million from the General Fund "to begin compensating government retirees who were owed money when they were part of the bargaining unit."
Expecting opposition, Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., the amendment's sponsor, quickly clarified what the measure seeks to accomplish and explained to senators that many residents, prior to retiring, negotiated wage increases included in their collective bargaining agreements. "But the government didn't give them those increases," White said. "And then, when they got tired of waiting and retired, the government said they weren't going to pay them at all."
While supporting the intent of the amendment, many senators said they needed to know what bargaining units the retirees belonged to and the total amount owed by the government. Sen. David additionally said the amendment is "dangerous" and "could add to the Government Employees Retirement System's unfunded liability."
Though White attempted to address many of the concerns, David abstained from voting. Berry, Davis, Donastorg, Encarnacion, Figueroa-Serville, Hill, James, Jn Baptiste, Malone, Nelson, Richards, Russell and White voted in favor.
Sen. Craig W. Barshinger was absent at voting time.
Other amendments added to the small claims bill included:
–a $600,000 appropriation from the Transportation Trust Fund for the completion of road repairs in Estate Mary's Fancy on St. Croix.
–a language change in the V.I. Code to allow for a $7 million grant to be awarded to the University of the Virgin Islands to fund startup costs for a research and technology park.
–an additional $300,000 appropriation to fund mold mitigation, air conditioning and roof repair for the St. Croix Legislative Complex.
–a $150,000 appropriation from the General Fund to the American Red Cross in the St. Thomas/St. John district to purchase equipment in preparation for hurricane season and to provide disaster relief to needy individuals.
–a $36,000 appropriation from the General Fund to the Public Employees Relations Board to offset training, court reporting fees, administrative costs and others.
–an amendment to the V.I. Code to add "pregnancy" as one of the conditions for granting or receiving donated leave.
–a $41,000 appropriation from the General Fund to the Department of Human Services for the Herbert Grigg Home for the Aged for the purchase of an express van and other equipment for the Home.
–a $100,000 appropriation from the General Fund to the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation to upgrade the lighting and complete other necessary repairs at the Basilio Ballpark on St. Croix.
–an amendment to the V.I. Code to allow money appropriated for veterans seeking to travel off-island for medical care to be available until expended.
–an amendment to pay government employees using their personal vehicles to conduct government work 65 cents for every mile they travel.
–a $165,000 appropriation from the General Fund to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources for the Aquaculture and Marine Culture Commission for administrative purposes.
–a $40,000 appropriation from the General Fund to Fire Services for the purchase of new bedding and other furnishings for the four fire stations on St. Croix.
–a $20,000 appropriation to the St. Croix Educational Complex for the maintenance and upkeep of the school's baseball, football and track and field facilities.
–a $30,000 appropriation to Public Works for a flood mitigation plan for Hannah's Rest, the Estate Plessing Housing Community and the Mon Bijou area on St. Croix.

All senators were present during Wednesday's session.
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