SLASHES IN BUDGET MEAN PAY CUTS, LAYOFFS

Pay cuts, layoffs and decreases in government services appear imminent after a meeting Friday between Gov. Charles Turnbull and members of the 23rd Legislature, where senators were told the territory's budget must be slashed by 15 percent.
"Who gets fired first is the biggest question," Sen. Anne Golden said gloomily after Friday's meeting. "We do have a monster of a government and a workforce that's really too large, and it needs to be streamlined."
Layoffs appear to be unavoidable because the succeeding administrations have taken little action to solve the government's financial problems, Sen. George Goodwin said.
"If you're going to cut 15 percent, it simply means you're going to cut into employees," Goodwin said.
"The government has to cut its expenses and so far it hasn't done anything in that breadth," he continued. "Now we face options that are difficult and we have to face them now, or some else will be making decisions for us."
Turnbull is expected to send several pieces of cost cutting legislation to the Senate in the coming weeks. According to senators interviewed Friday, these bills may include authorization to take out a $100 million loan, government reorganization, the elimination of five government holidays, and the 15 percent budget cut.
The budget was previously trimmed by 5 percent from about $488 million to $466 million. The additional 10 percent cut drops spending another $46 million, but exact figures were not available Friday afternoon.
"These cost saving measures require biting the bullet," Senate President Vargrave Richards said after the meeting. "The governor has a plan to deal with the budget deficit and he's obviously facing the reality in terms of being able to make payroll in the next six to eight weeks.
"It's time to address these major concerns. We have for too long been running from this day," Richards said.
Golden and other senators said before layoffs take place, the government should attempt to buy out employees interested in leaving public service.
"What they ought to do is consider getting some of the most expensive people off the payroll first," Golden said. "And there are some who have simply been there too long."
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd said he has submitted legislation to create a program where the government will be able to buy out employee's contracts, giving them seed money to make the transition to private life.
"I believe there's a lot of people who would be willing to do that, especially because it looks like they're going to receive a salary cut," Liburd said.
The government should also consider cutting a few hours from the work week, he said.
"I don't believe there should be layoffs. If it's either lay-offs or cutting the work week, I think the public will go along with cutting the work week," Liburd said.
While layoffs are not definite, government reorganization is a certainty. Turnbull's Chief of Staff Juel Molloy has said in recent interviews that all government departments and agencies will undergo at least some internal restructuring while some will be consolidated into others.
Major reorganizations proposals include combining the V.I. Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation, the V.I. Housing Authority and the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, and consolidating the Office of Collective Bargaining with the Division of Personnel into a Division of Human Resources, Molloy said.
The administration may also combine the Small Business Development Administration, the Government Development Bank and the Industrial Development Commission.
Other proposals are still being examined, Molloy said.
Another method apparently being discussed to cut the size of the government is privatization.
Golden said the V.I. Water and Power Authority is an agency the government should seriously consider selling.
"When you've got a critical utility and you realize you can't finance its operations anymore, you have to sell it," Golden said.
The overall sentiment of senators leaving the meeting was that the territory is running of time to straighten out its finances.
"The governor presented a picture to us in which the implication is, if we don't make tough decisions, the federal government will make them for us," Sen. Allie-Allison Petrus said. "Now is the time to act and act as if there's no tomorrow."
Senators also said the growing financial problems may soon be too large for the territory to deal with on its own.
"I think there is now an understanding that as elected officials there are some tough times ahead of us and we are going go have to make some decisions that are very unpopular," Sen. Roosevelt David said. " If we don't have the guts to make these decisions now, it simply means that we have definitely lost control."
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