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GERS AND SENATE AT ODDS OVER EARLY RETIREMENT

July 12, 2001 – After a daylong session that kept some government officials waiting for more than eight hours to testify, the Senate Finance Committee finally heard from the Water and Power Authority and Government Employees Retirement System officers late Wednesday about a bill to extend early retirement to certain WAPA employees who perform hazardous duty.
The WAPA bill, sponsored by Finance Committee Chairwoman Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, would allow linemen and certain power plant production employees to increase their GERS contributions and be eligible for early retirement after 20 years of service.
The proposal didn't go over well with GERS officers. Laurence Bryan, GERS administrator, said the measure would "bankrupt" the already fiscally fragile system.
The Senate and GERS have a long history of go-rounds regarding retirement funding. GERS now has a court case against the V.I. government regarding funding. The new legislation would increase the system's unfunded liabilities by $1.9 million.
Cecilia P. Senthill-Harrigan, assistant GERS administrator, agreed that $1.9 million would be needed to satisfy retroactive payments to the system. Hansen replied that the funding would be identified without adding an additional burden on WAPA employees.
Ralph Mandrew, V.I. Workers Union president, spoke at length about ills suffered by WAPA employees over the years, detailing individual cases of harm and illnesses caused by their work.
Mandrew and Gerald Hodge Jr., co-chair of the WAPA employees buyout committee, strongly supported the legislation.
Nicholas Lazare, vice president of the buyout committee, also supported it. He said WAPA's St. Croix plant still has 55 percent of the asbestos that WAPA management has claimed was removed.
Before hearing from the WAPA and GERS officers, the Finance Committee quickly heard from the remaining government officials who were there to testify on requests in Gov. Charles Turnbull's $43.4 million supplemental appropriation bill for fiscal year 2001.
The Finance Committee will reconvene at 4 p.m. Thursday to conclude the meeting, which ended after 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, and to vote on the appropriations. The meeting will follow a 10 a.m. Government Operations, Planning and Environmental Protection Committee meeting.
The five senators who remained for the meeting all indicated support for the WAPA the proposal. They are Douglas Canton Jr., Norma Pickard-Samuel, Celestino White Sr. and Donald "Ducks" Cole, along with Hansen.

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