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Visitability Legislation a High Priority for Disability Advocates

Independent senatorial candidate Lee Seward speaking at Tuesday's VIUCED candidate forum on St. Croix.Some senator is anonymously holding up a "visitability" bill supported by disability advocates to create tax benefits for retrofitting homes to be more accessible, several incumbent senators said at an election forum Tuesday before a crowd of persons with disabilities, service providers and advocates.
The V.I. University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities hosted the forum on the St. Croix campus of UVI, giving those with disabilities and those involved with providing services a chance to communicate with current and would-be legislators about how best to promote progress.
Many, but not all, of St. Croix’s senatorial candidates appeared at the forum, with one group taking questions in the morning and a second in the afternoon.
Questions focused on education and transition issues, employment, accessibility and "visitability"–providing regulations or incentives to make new and renovated homes more accessible and easier to customize for full accessibility
Sitting senators and challengers alike endorsed the concept of tax incentives for retrofitting homes.
"It’s a win-win situation," said Sen. Sammuel Sanes (D) of the proposed legislation during the morning session. "Those who build with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility in mind would be tax exempt, and it will enable us to better access our homes," he said.
Though the bill has broad support, it apparently is being held back from being introduced for debate in committee.
"Call your senator today if you want to see this happen," Sanes said. "There is a senator blocking this bill."
According to Sen. Michael Thurland (D), visitability legislation was written up and distributed after the matter was raised at a senior citizen mock session of the Legislature, but never reappeared as an actual bill for consideration by committee.
"This first came to be from senior citizens concerned about their own situation and the need to makes homes visitable," Thurland said during the afternoon session. "But to this date, I have not seen a draft of that piece of legislation appear."
Thurland, like all the candidates who were asked, favored the legislation and argued visitability should be built into all new homes.
"It is easier to build a home from scratch with these things in mind than to retrofit," he said.
On questions ranging from how they would improve support systems to help students with disabilities transition to the workforce to what their plan was to bring the territory into compliance with ADA requirements, many candidates promised more money if they are elected.
Property taxes, gross receipts taxes and V.I. Lottery proceeds were often identified as potential sources of cash, despite current fiscal stress on government coffers.
"If we ever collect property taxes again, I would propose directly allocating a percentage of those receipts," said Sen. Neville James (D) when asked what he would do to increase sensitivity to the issues of those with disabilities and what he would do to increase ADA enforcement in private offices and public places.
Wayne "Bully" Petersen (I) proposed increasing funding to nonprofit organizations and decried recent budget cuts affecting nonprofits.
"This is a constant problem, where the local government is not doing its share to help those who are less fortunate," Petersen said. "Nonprofits can do a more effective job over time than the government agencies."
Petersen did not say where the money would come from.
Asked what incentives and policy directives she would support to encourage businesses to hire persons with disabilities, Naomi Joseph (ICM) suggested a tax credit.
"We could give a tax incentive by (forgiving) gross receipts taxes for a month or some period of time for businesses to hire a person with disabilities," she said.
The question-and-answer sessions each lasted about two and a half hours, with each candidate answering several questions selected at random from a list composed in advance.
Candidates at the forum included Joseph, Petersen, Sanes, Thurland; Myron Allick (I),
Diane Capehart (D), Judi Fricks (I), Alicia Hansen (I), Terrence "Positive" Nelson (ICM), Ronald Russell (D), Lee Seward (I), Kendall "Seigo" Petersen (ICM), Usie Richards (ICM), Jimi Weber (D), and Alecia Wells (I – St. John).
This is the seventh year and third election cycle VIUCED has hosted the forum. Later this week the show moves to St. Thomas, with congressional and gubernatorial candidates Thursday and senatorial candidates Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Windward Passage Hotel.
There is no fee for the event, but space is limited on both islands. You can register by contacting Dr. Sandra Ross on St. Croix at 692-1919 and on St. Thomas contact Andrea Plunkett at 693-1173.

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