After taking out title restrictions rejected by the V.I. Government, the Senate Rules Committee passed a bill Friday authorizing the V.I. government to buy 12.4 acres surrounding Creque Dam on St. Croix, sending it on to the full Senate. Before it was amended, the bill would have appropriated "up to" $7 million from the territory’s Land Bank Fund to buy the land from well-known St. Croix icon John Tranberg and hold it for conservation and public use.
The land, Plot No. 14AB North Hall, was leased by the V.I. government and used as a quarry from 1929 to 1940. Several decades after the quarry closed, zoning laws went into effect in the territory and the land was zoned agricultural, prohibiting a rock quarry.
The bill was sponsored by Sens. Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Sammuel Sanes. A very similar bill was introduced by Nelson in 2007, but after approval in committee, was not taken up for consideration by the Rules Committee. This is at least the second time the Legislature has authorized the V.I. government to negotiate the purchase of the property, including Act 6534, passed in 2002.
The bill itself cites Act 5758 as another act authorizing the purchase. A search of the Legislature’s online database did not turn up a reference to an act with that number.
But the government has thus far declined to act on the authorization, citing sections of the bill and the 2002 Act concerns about the bill both setting a price for the land and requiring that Tranberg retain 50 percent of the mineral rights.
"The government does not purchase property with said type of restrictions to the land," said Deputy Commissioner of Property and Procurement Halvor Hart III, at a committee hearing July 19.
The current bill clarifies that the government will negotiate the price as it would with any land.
Nelson offered an amendment, making the question of mineral rights subject to negotiation between the parties, essentially eliminating that concern. It turns out the Land Bank Fund has only about $2 million, not the $7 million cited, so Nelson’s amendment also changes the appropriation to $2 million in the current fiscal year, $2.5 million next fiscal year and $2.5 million the following year.
The amendment and bill were passed by the same vote counts, with Sanes, Sens. Michael Thurland and Neville James voting yea, Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe voting nay and Sens. Usie Richards, Patrick Sprauve and Celestino White absent.
The committee also approved a bill to appropriate $15.5 million, spread over the next three years, for planning and building the school and for operating a creative and performing arts school within it. The bill also appropriates $200,000 annually in perpetuity, starting September 2013, to set up and run a creative and performing arts school within Central.
It creates a permanent public school construction fund and identifies the Internal Revenue Matching Fund, composed of remitted federal rum excise taxes, as the funding source.
The 2011 budget submitted by Gov. John deJongh Jr. allocates projected rum tax revenues in the Internal Revenue Matching Fund to servicing bonds and to the government’s general fund. After allocating all the expected revenue, the budget does not project a surplus, suggesting any funds to be spent in 2011 on planning for a new school may have to be offset by cuts elsewhere.
Before a new school could be built on the proposed slice of land adjacent to the existing high school, the U.S. Department of Education will have to sign off, Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry said during a recent committee hearing. The U.S. Education Department deeded the land to the V.I. Department of Education, and that deed requires the land be used for agricultural research until 2024. The V.I. Education Department is in violation of that provision, so to build a school now will require the department to either buy the land outright or submit a recommendation to the U.S. Department of Education that the land be used for a school, she said.
Thurland addressed that concern with an amendment deleting the section identifying what plot of land is to be used, letting that decision wait for another day. Dowe offered an amendment appropriating another $125,000 for costs incurred when an electric panel box caught on fire in the St. Thomas Board of Education offices, and Sanes offered one requiring the school to incorporate energy efficient "green" technology.
Rules passed a somewhat smaller appropriation from the government’s General Fund to spend $40,000 to build restrooms and benches in Christiansted. When the bill was in its originating committee, the executive branch asked for a different source of funding, arguing the General Fund was already tapped out for the year. No new funding source has been identified yet.
Dowe offered an amendment adding several small, new appropriations to the bill:
- $63,000 to O’Reilly Plumbing and Construction for repairing restrooms "since 1996" at Evelyn Williams Elementary School;
- $11,000 for purported past due bills to Leslie Trucking for work done cleaning the Michelle Motel in 2005;
- $14,000 to pay Edward Jarvis Plumbing for work purportedly done in 2006;
- $13,000 to pay Dr. Rodney Fabio Jr. for dentistry work at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility (no date given).
Lastly, the committee passed what was initially a $15,000 appropriation bill for the Ronald Charles Basketball League on St. Croix. Dowe offered an amendment for another $95,000, with $25,000 for the Elrod Hendricks Little League West 9-10 Division for travel to the regional Little League tournament and $70,000 for the junior and senior league teams for off-island travel. The bill now appropriates $110,000 from the General Fund.
Except for the bill to buy Tranberg’s property, all the amendments and the bill passed with Dowe, James, Sanes and Thurland voting yea and Richards, Sprauve and White absent.