Nov. 30, 2006 — While the Omnibus Authorization and Government Reform and Modernization acts, currently being considered by the Legislature, make several new changes to existing government departments and agencies, they also pull together several bills that have long been pending in various Senate committees.
Among those pending are provisions giving greater autonomy to the V.I. Inspector General's Office and releasing money earmarked for affordable housing developments to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority (VIHFA).
During Thursday's Committee of the Whole hearing, Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt and VIHFA Executive Director Clifford Graham testified in support of both proposals, urging senators not to delete them from the Omnibus bill, which will come up for a final vote during a Senate session scheduled for Dec. 11.
Both provisions were first introduced on the Senate floor in September and were pending in the Committee on Rules and Judiciary.
After years of waiting and making numerous requests to the Legislature, Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt will have the authority to, if the bill is signed into law by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, hire and fire his own employees without having to go through the government's Personnel Division.
According to the proposal, which first started out as an independent bill sponsored by Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, van Beverhoudt would also have the ability to regulate salaries paid to his staff.
Local law currently stipulates that department heads, in trying to fill a vacancy, must submit a request to the Division of Personnel, which then supplies the department with a list of eligible candidates for the position.
Van Beverhoudt has stated on several occasions that this process hampers his ability "to hire qualified individuals" and "questions the independence" of the Office of the Inspector General.
"All aspects of independence and the appearance of independence are critical to the operations of any auditing agency," he said during Thursday's meeting. "And the V.I. Inspector General's Office is not the ordinary executive agency — it is the watchdog of the V.I. government."
Van Beverhoudt added that the ability to adjust employees' salaries would make it easier for the office to attract and retain qualified workers.
Housing Finance Authority
While only one sentence long, a provision to release money earmarked for affordable housing developments to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, is significant as it gives the Commissioner of Finance long sought-after authority.
According to Graham, the V.I. Code requires that 30 percent of revenue generated by the territory's stamp tax be deposited into the Land Bank Fund for VIHFA projects. He added, however, that the current statute does not authorize the Commissioner of Finance, who is tasked with administering all government funds, to release the money once a request is made.
"There is presently $5.5 million worth of funding that has already been transferred to the Land Bank Fund for fiscal year 2006," Graham said. "But the commissioner has told me that she has no authority to release the funds, which must be made available to subsidize the building of new homes."
Seeking to tighten the bill's language, Graham also recommended that senators change one word included in the provision to eliminate any ambiguity. "Instead of saying the commissioner 'may' release the funds, we propose that the sentence should say that the commissioner 'shall' release the funds," he explained.
Over the last two days, Senate President Lorraine L. Berry has said that senators would take into consideration all recommendations made by testifiers, and would decide which sections of the two bills need to be revised or removed before the December session.
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