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HomeNewsLocal governmentSenate Honors USVI Heroes, May Punish Deadbeat Parents

Senate Honors USVI Heroes, May Punish Deadbeat Parents

A Virgin Islands Senate committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would rename part of Gamle Gade for longtime pastor William A. Industrious. (Screenshot from V.I. Legislature Facebook live stream)

Tennis is often a one-on-one sport but Virgin Islands educators and tennis enthusiasts remembered Fenella Cooper as someone who both drove herself and others to be their best on and off the court. Cooper inspired contemporaries and future generations of tennis players with her exacting passion for the sport, her friends told a Senate committee Tuesday. She also worked closely building future generations of Virgin Islanders away from tennis, emphasizing writing, community engagement, and financial literacy.

A writing and life-skills teacher at Charlotte Amalie High School and tennis teacher at the University of the Virgin Islands, Cooper was a relentless competitor, a rigorous practicer, and a general no-nonsense person, her friends said.

“She never believed you could fail at anything you put your mind to,” said her former opponent and doubles partner Gerald Walters.

“She didn’t like to fail,” said friend George Newton.

The Senate’s Committee on Government Operations voted to rename the University of the Virgin Islands tennis courts in her honor.

UVI President David Hall praised Cooper but also noted that naming rights for university facilities on the mainland often go to commercial entities that make regular contributions to their upkeep and the associated sports program. Hall said the USVI government should make the same pledge. The cost of a tennis program at UVI, which currently lacks one, would be roughly $69,000 yearly, he said.

A few days away from his 95th birthday, William Industrious looked back on a life of selfless service to others. At the committee’s hearing, friends and family praised the longtime pastor, who had worked several jobs to support his religious convictions. Senators unanimously voted to rename a portion of Gamle Gade in his honor.

Industrious refused to take a salary for his ministerial work and instead dedicated money from his careers as a taxi driver and waiter.

Industrious said he heard his religious revelation in 1958 while living near what is now Charlotte Amalie’s federal building.

“When I accepted the call, my life was changed completely from the way I was living, gambling, smoking, drinking as a young man,” he said. “I just started dedicating it to the lord.”

He warned against spiritual leaders who take from the poor, especially the destitute.

“I didn’t come to the gospel for money. I came to the gospel to be borne into the kingdom. I didn’t take money. I put in money,” Industrious said. “Pay your tithes. That’s what the Bible demands. Ten cents of every dollar belongs to God.”

Industrious inspired generations of pastors and has stood as a role model for decency and community service, testifiers said.

“I’m so grateful for what God has done for me and what he has done in my life,” Industrious said.

The committee also discussed a bill that would raise the level of child support for the selfish — non-custodial parents who fail to appear for court hearings where child support payments are set. Currently, the default setting is $250 for parents who fail to provide the financial information necessary to compute the child support obligation. A new default payment minimum would be $350 for the first child and $75 for each additional child.

Deadbeat parents might skip such hearings because they could be ordered to pay much more than $250, based on their actual income, said Kathryn Jensen-de Lugo, the IV-D program director of the Paternity and Child Support Division of the Virgin Islands Department of Justice. Skipping such hearings or not bringing proper documentation — six paychecks, tax returns for three years, or any other proof of source of income — was epidemic, and no review of the guidelines had happened since 2008, she said. The law itself had not been changed since 1991.

The guidelines should be reviewed every four years, Jensen-de Lugo said.

The extra $100 may not move parents looking to dodge child support payments that might be higher, or maybe it will. The legislation was meant to be a first step for data collection.

“It’s a good new starting point for us to see how we can incentivize people,” she said.

Senators worried the child-support loophole had been around too long, and incremental changes might not spark different behavior.

“If it were really up to me, it would be $1,000,” Jensen-de Lugo said. “In some states it’s $5,000.”

Parents who owe more than $2,500 could have their driver’s license suspended and other penalties.

Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger said parking penalties were stricter than those for shirking fair child support.

“We have to stop leaving loopholes open in this sort of legislation,” Francis Heyliger said. “We have to go full force.”

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory urged a data-based approach to the issue.

“We have to come back to what this baseline number needs to be,” Frett-Gregory said. “If you are a parent who makes $250,000, this legislation serves you well.”

Sen. Carla Joseph, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation was a work in progress. During the hearing, several amendments were proposed. but Joseph was adamant that the legislation was needed immediately, saying at least 80 percent of public housing units were occupied by single-parent households headed by women.

“We have a major issue with poverty in the Virgin Islands and I ain’t leaving no child behind,” Joseph said. “Our children, the most precious commodity we have here, are suffering.”

Joseph amended her bill to make the minimum default payment of $1,000 for the first child and each additional child $150.

Another potential hurdle is getting proper information on people who are paid in cash and don’t report their income. People who work in such underground economies could be gypsy taxi drivers, restaurant workers, construction workers, or others paid in cash, Jensen-de Lugo said.

“What we find is, people who don’t show up for hearings have unreported income,” she said. “Those are the people who don’t show up on a normal basis, they work in an underground economy.”

Jensen-de Lugo’s office investigates such matters with two special agents in each district, sometimes finding someone who buys a $1.5 million home but claims they can’t pay $500 a month in child support.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens urged greater enforcement of existing laws as well.

“That’s why we need to increase it. But while we increase it, we need to make sure we go out there and go after those people and do what’s right for these children,” Gittens said.

Like the mainland, a parent must pay child support in the Virgin Islands to age 18 or 22 if the child is in college.

Sen. Javan James and Sen. Milton Potter voted against the bill asking for more data, but five others voted in favor, passing the measure on to the Committee on Government Operations.

“I think we need to review what other jurisdictions are doing as well,” Potter said.

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