May 12, 2009 — A bill to allow one-time retention bonuses of up to $5,000 to encourage police officers, some teachers, nurses, and certain other hard-to-replace employees to keep working after reaching retirement was passed by the Senate Financial Services, Infrastructure and Consumer Affairs Committee Tuesday. The departments of Police, Education and Human Services all could benefit, but all have concerns.
"The department has developed a pool of teachers who can potentially retire in 2011 and may be affected by this bill," said Donna Frett-Gregory, Education's assistant commissioner for operations.
"In the St. Croix district, there are 161 teachers who are expected to have 30 years of service and or reach the retirement age of 60 by 2011. In the St. Thomas-St. John district there are 148 teachers who meet these criteria."
About half of those teachers are certified in special education or in other specialties, she said, so if they all retired, there could be a severe shortage. At the same time, many of the teachers near retirement are not certified as highly qualified and so the department would not want to retain every single teacher.
Education supports the bill "providing the Department of Education retains control over exercising the option to retain only the personnel that the department deems vital," Frett-Gregory said. Also, since bonuses are negotiable, both the unions and management would have to agree to change their contracts.
Human Services might be able to attract and hire more full-time nurses, a chronic area of difficulty for the department, but the bill would need to be amended to specifically include Human Services, and, as with Education, Human Services would want to decide who does and does not get retention bonuses, said Human Services Commissioner Christopher Finch.
Police could also benefit.
"A good 40 percent of our work force is eligible for retirement, so certainly being able to offer some retention bonuses will be something useful in our arsenal," acting Police Commissioner Novelle Francis said.
Voting to forward the bill out of committee were Sens. Neville James, Michael Thurland, Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O'Reilly, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Wayne James and Celestino White; the bill's sponsor. No one voted nay. Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg was absent.
Another bill sponsored by White was held in committee at his request. The bill would have allowed those who owe the government, but whom the government owes retroactive salary increases, to apply what they are owed in retroactive pay toward their debt to the government.
Officials from Finance and from the Office of Management and Budget testified the bill would break the bank, but that the government was nearing completion of an audit of all retroactive payments due and would be forming a plan to address the issue.
"At a time the Virgin Islands Government is facing a projected budget deficit of $188 million in fiscal year 2009 and $193 million in fiscal year 2010, this would be devastating from a cash flow perspective," said acting Finance Commissioner Angel Dawson. "Moreover, without a legislative appropriation, it cannot be implemented.
White asked the bill be held in committee for modification.
"The bill is good, but the arguments against it are stronger," White said.
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