Feb. 7, 2003 – Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has called the Legislature into special session on Wednesday to consider two bills. One concerns property tax assessments; the other calls for lump-sum budgets in the executive branch, an appropriation to pay salary increases in the executive branch, and making funding appropriated earlier for St. John VITRAN service available until expended.
The special session will not address the issue of video lottery operations.
Turnbull had insisted that the Legislature act by Jan. 31 on legislation he sent on Jan. 22 repealing the legalization of video lottery operations. Although the Senate has taken no action on it, the governor did not mention the VLT bill in his letter to Senate President David Jones calling the special session. (See "Governor submits bill to repeal VLT legislation".)
When a special session is convened, it must address only the matters specified in the calling of the session.
The tax bill is intended to ease the collecting of commercial property taxes while a challenge to the territory's manner of assessing real property values for taxing purposes is before the District Court. In a release Friday afternoon, Turnbull said the measure directs the Office of Tax Assessor to assess commercial property for the years 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 based on the 1999 assessment, with the next assessment of commercial properties to occur in 2005.
The lump-sum budget bill would give heads of departments and agencies discretion in allocating resources within their overall budgets, something Turnbull sought in vain on repeated occasions from the 24th Legislature. For the last two years, the Senate Finance Committee has dictated line-item budgets spelling out how much money can be spent for what purpose. This constraint forced agency heads on numerous occasions to return to the committee hat in hand to request the reallocation of funds within their appropriations.
In his cover letter to Jones, Turnbull noted that he had told the Legislature last November that "No 2001 commercial real property tax bills have been issued by the tax assessor due to concern that the court case V.I. Berne Corp. et al. vs. the Government of the V.I. prohibited the government from issuing tax bills until such time as the tax assessor develops and correctly implements uniform appraisal standards." (See "3-year freeze on property assessments proposed".)
By not being able to collect commercial property taxes the government is experiencing a shortfall of millions of dollars. Tax Assessor Roy Martin said at a budget hearing last July that there are about 1,500 commercial property owners in the territory. Tax revenues for commercial property assessed on the basis of replacement value would be $9 million to $10 million this year, he said, but under court-ordered assessment on the basis of market value, they could be as little as $7 million.
The governor said it is the opinion of Attorney General Iver Stridiron that if the law were to be changed as Turnbull proposes, "there would be no violation of the current settlement agreement, and the government would still be able to continue … sending out corrected commercial real property tax bills until such time as new guidelines are implemented."
The second section of the bill mandating lump-sum budgets reads in its entirety: "Act. No. 6554 is hereby amended in section 1 by deleting the word 'unionized' where it appears." According to the bill summary, this amendment is "to allocate funds for salary increases."
Act. No. 6554, passed by the 24th Legislature last August and signed by the governor in September, authorizes the Office of Management and Budget director to allocate money from the miscellaneous section of the Fiscal Year 2003 Fiscal budget to cover salary increases to each executive branch department and agency. Friday's release did not identify who would receive the raises, not does the summary of the bill.
The third section of that same bill provides that funding appropriated last year for St. John Vitran buses "shall remain available until expended."
Urging the Legislature to pass the two bills, Turnbull said both "are critical to the continued operation of the government."
An aide to Jones said he was off-island and not available for comment on Friday.
The special session is to begin at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
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