81.9 F
Cruz Bay
Sunday, June 4, 2023
HomeNewsArchivesProperty-Tax Debate Continues at Constitutional Convention Hearing

Property-Tax Debate Continues at Constitutional Convention Hearing

April 11, 2008 — A room full of constitutional convention delegates, flanked by four members of the public, heard testimony Friday about native rights and taxation during a public hearing by the Committee on Taxation, Finance and Commerce.
The committee is one of 12 participating in the Fifth Constitutional Convention, which is charged with having a draft constitution for the Virgin Islands prepared by July 27, although delegates predicted that that date will be revisited. Once a draft is approved, it goes to the governor, then Congress, then the president for review, and if approved, it's returned to the territory for a vote later this year.
Concerns raised during a public hearing held by the same committee Thursday on St. John were echoed Friday evening as speaker after speaker railed against a proposed new tax structure for the territory, which arose out of a federal mandate to reevaluate property based on 2006 fair market values. Detractors argued that the new system holds such dramatic tax increases for St. John that it could drive residents from their homes.
"We need help now … immediate attention," said delegate Wilma Marsh Monsanto. "We cannot wait for a constitution. We are treated so unfairly on St. John — a 300-percent increase! It's just not right. The reassessment needs to be thrown out the window, and it needs to be reconsidered."
Gentrification was blamed for driving up values, and many testified that native-born Virgin Islanders deserve redress.
"I don't believe native-born Virgin Islanders should pay property tax," said delegate Michael Thurland. "I think we have certain generational rights as those sons and daughters of slaves. We have not been repaid."
Testifying as a member of the public, Hiram Rasool Abiff suggested that the delegates need to use this convention as an opportunity to examine independence from the United States.
"Why should we not build on the foundation of the people who struggled before us?" Abiff said. "(Independence) has to be an option, it has to be on the table. America did it. And they say we have to follow the constitution. They made one that suited the needs of America, and that's what this constitution should do, is suit the needs of the Virgin Islands. You have to give the people who struggled a little more than the people who benefited from the struggle."
Some people testifying Friday pointed to what they called inequities in property taxes, including dispensations granted to large tract holders and corporations such as the Hovensa refinery on St. Croix, which Abiff said pays $1 a year for what he described as "prime" real estate. Tax breaks afforded certain businesses through the Economic Development Commission (EDC) were also questioned.
"I think we ought to take a look at the real benefits of the EDC program," said delegate Thomas Moore. "How is it working out? Are we really gaining from it, or not? It seems to me that's something, as a taxation committee, we ought to be taking a look at."
Moore, former District Court judge, argued for instilling equity in the territory's taxation system by replacing property taxes with income taxes.
"I think it's within our power to make it clear that the Virgin Islands legislature has the authority to set income taxes, and they can be made much more equitable, more fair for everyone," he said.
While Moore argued that his proposal has legal standing, one delegate urged his colleagues to keep in mind that any document they produce must not go against the tenets of the U.S. constitution or it will be rejected when it reaches Washington.
"I'm asking us to make sure during this whole process, that we keep in mind our goal, that it will pass Congress and be accepted … otherwise we have failed in our mission," said Francis Jackson, an attorney.
His appeal prompted a passionate reply from delegate Thurland.
"Mahatma Gandhi made a statement when he was fighting to get Great Britain out of his place in India," Thurland told the group. "He said, 'I welcome all cultures to be blown throughout my house, but I refuse to be blown off my feet by any,' and that's where I stand."
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Keeping our community informed is our top priority.
If you have a news tip to share, please call or text us at 340-228-8784.

Support local + independent journalism in the U.S. Virgin Islands

Unlike many news organizations, we haven't put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as accessible as we can. Our independent journalism costs time, money and hard work to keep you informed, but we do it because we believe that it matters. We know that informed communities are empowered ones. If you appreciate our reporting and want to help make our future more secure, please consider donating.