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V.I. Constitution Panel Discusses Local Property-Tax System

Feb. 3, 2007 — St. Thomas attorney Joanne Bozzuto was clear Saturday about one thing a V.I. constitution could do for residents.
"We can put in the constitution our own property-tax system," she told the nearly 50 people gathered at the Westin Resort and Villas' ballroom for a public forum on the upcoming constitutional convention.
Most residents will see an increase in their property taxes once property revaluation is completed, said Bozzuto, a panelist at the forum. The revaluation is necessary because U.S. District Judge Thomas K. Moore ruled in 2000 that both commercial and residential properties must be assessed the same and at fair market value.
The ruling eliminates the handful of exemptions now in place and allowed by many states, such as homestead, veterans, senior citizen and agriculture, she said. It also ends the practice of capping property-tax increases, she said. As the law now stands, Bozzuto said, the same tax rate applies both to full-time residents and to those who don't live in the territory but have a house here.
The forum was part of the University of the Virgin Islands' public-education campaign on the territory's efforts to forge a constitution.
Voters will go to the polls June 12 to elect delegates to the convention, which will be held starting July 23. The delegates have until July 27, 2008, to come up with the document, which then goes to the governor, the president, Congress and finally back to V.I. voters for ratification.
This is the fifth attempt at developing a constitution. Voters failed to ratify the last one in 1980. (For a history of prior constitutional conventions, see "Constitutional Conventions: What's Gone Before.")
Panelist Yvonne Tharpes, who lives on St. John and serves as the Legislature's chief legal counsel, was a delegate to the 1980 convention. She said the lack of forums such as the one Saturday may have been a reason why voters failed to ratify the constitution.
"A lot of people didn't understand the role of the constitution. It's the basic charter of the Virgin Islands," she said.
Tharpes recalled lively debate at the Fourth Constitutional Convention. She said it was important that the Fifth Constitutional Convention include similar debate, as well as a committee on style and drafting to write precise language.
"This is a legal document," she said.
Carlyle Corbin, a scholar with experience in the international arena, discussed the difference between a constitution and status, which is another issue that occasionally comes to the forefront. The constitution will organize the internal workings of the local government, he said, while status deals with the territory's relationship with the U.S. government and the rest of the world.
UVI President LaVerne Ragster, another panelist, urged everyone who can vote to get involved with the constitutional issues.
"This is about our instead of us and them," she said.
Several people who attended said they came out to gather information so they'll be better informed when the time comes to vote. While nearly all the people who attended the forum live on St. John or St. Thomas, one visitor from the mainland took a turn at the microphone.
Massachusetts resident Richard Powers, who identified himself as an attorney working in higher education, said that a constitution would give residents rights greater than those guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. He urged those involved in drafting the document to include the right to an education, which is not included in the U.S. constitution.
After Powers asked who would get to vote on the constitution, Tharpes pointed out the legislation that authorized the constitutional convention has an equal-protection clause, meaning that everyone registered to vote in other elections may decide on ratification of the constitution.
To learn more, attend the next public forum on Feb. 23 on St. Thomas or click here. Moderator Tregenze Roach did not give a location for the St. Thomas forum.
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