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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, May 30, 2024


Jan. 22, 2002 – More than 2,000 V.I. residents have signed a petition to repeal overrides of vetoes of legislation which an advocacy group fears will lead to bankrupting the Government Employees Retirement System, and a meeting will be held Saturday on St. Thomas to discuss the concerns.
The group sponsoring the petition and the meeting, Advocates for Preservation of the Retirement System, was formed in October with an eye toward protecting the future of GERS. Founding members include Hugo Dennis, three-time senator and one-time Senate president; and Aubrey Lee, a former Labor Department official.
The group is seeking to mobilize the community now to protest two recent Senate overrides of gubernatorial vetoes of legislation. One gives early retirement benefits to certain Water and Power Authority hazardous duty employees; the other increases the cap on senators' own pensions to 75 percent of their most recent salaries, up from 65 percent.
"The 24th Legislature continues to violate the public trust by passing legislation for special classes of workers without regard to the overall negative impact these special dispensations will have on the system," Dennis, the group's chair, said.
Retired educator Marie Simmons, spokesperson for the group, said, "We have really been getting the message out there. We have done everything we said we would in October."
The group vowed in October to get 6,000 signatures by the end of January and to hold a mass meeting in January. The meeting is set for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School auditorium.
"We aimed to have 600 people at the meeting," Simmons said. "With more than 2,000 signatures already in hand, we are bound to get more than that number."
Groups will be coming from St. Croix and St. John, "and they are paying their own fares, too," Simmons said. Those groups have gathered signatures and will be bringing their petitions, she said, adding to the count she has so far.
Speakers at the meeting will include the GERS administrator, Laurence Bryan; its board chair, Carver Farrow; and Dennis. There will be an opportunity for other retirees to speak, Simmons said.
In October, Dennis said that GERS was "currently underfunded by more than a half billion dollars" and "losing about $30 million each year." The system was at risk, he said, "because of short-sighted measures the Senate has enacted."
According to Dennis, "The Legislature's primary role is to properly fund the statutory mandates which they have enacted into law. Over the past 10 years, the Legislature has enacted more than 500 unfunded mandates" Such "irresponsible leadership increases the unfunded liabilities," he said, and could lead to "the ultimate bankruptcy of the system."
Saturday's meeting is open to the public "and you need not be a government employee or retiree to sign the petition," Simmons said. Among those who have signed, she said, "We've gotten some gubernatorial candidates. Olaf Hendrickson on St. Croix and former senator Lloyd Williams on St. Thomas." And, she said, former legislator Michael Paiewonsky "stopped by the other day to give us encouragement."
The group members' fear is that the community is too complacent and does not recognize a very real threat to government retirees' future, she said. At the Saturday meeting, "We hope to inform everybody with information about GERS' financial standing," she said.
Promoting the petition drive, Simmons, Dennis and Cass Connell, a retired nurse and the group's secretary, have appeared on television and radio shows. Drives to collect signatures have been held at Tutu Park Mall and at the main post office in Sugar Estate on St. Thomas.
Simmons said the group has petitions at the Territorial Court, in public schools, in other government offices — "anywhere they will let us leave the petitions."
Off island groups are also involved. "We've had people calling us from Atlanta and Tampa," she said. "There's a big group of ex-islanders in Tampa, and they have endorsed us." She said APRS public relations officer Ida White is now in Tampa.
Finding a place to hold the meeting Saturday posed a problem, Simmons said, as the organization has no funding to rent a hall. However, Farrow, the principal at BCB, offered the school's auditorium. "We either paid nothing or a nominal amount," Simmons said, "but we have a venue now."
Dennis has stressed that "most of us have retired from government employment, but we have not retired from life," as the group's mission statement puts it. "Our brains, eyes and ears are still functioning," he said, and those concerned "will not sleep away our future by not taking positive action."
For more information, contact Dennis at 777-8276 or Simmonds at 714-1961.

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