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Finger-Pointing Marks Senate Finance Meeting

The V.I. Senate Finance Committee met Thursday to approve three appropriations transfers, but several members also seized the moment to refute the governor’s characterization of the 29th Legislature in his recent State of the Territory address.

Claudette Watson-Anderson, director of the V.I. Internal Revenue Bureau, requested permission to transfer $400,000 from the bureau’s personnel budget to pay for $111,000 worth of utilities as well as rent and infrastructure-improvement costs. The $400,000 is no longer needed for personnel costs, Watson-Anderson said, because she recently dismissed six staff members and a seventh voluntarily resigned.

Sen. Janette Millen Young expressed irritation with the bureau’s use of a form letter that attributed the six firings to inaction on the senators’ part, and she questioned the recent relocation of one office from Mandela Circle to a Red Hook rental space that cost nearly $2.5 million to renovate.

Young told Watson-Anderson it would have been more accurate to tell the fired employees: “Due to the fact that I spent $2.5 million building out somebody else’s place, that’s why I let you go.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Carlton Dowe disagreed, explaining that he had approved the new East End bureau project because the old location presented considerable health hazards caused by mold.

But Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly said she agreed with Young.

“I must have a noodle for a brain if I am going to vote in the affirmative for this request,” Rivera-O’Reilly said.

Rivera-O’Reilly and Young cast the two “no” votes against the request, while Sens. Louis Hill, Shawn Michael Malone, Celestino White Sr. and Dowe voted in the affirmative. Sen. Sammuel Sanes was absent but excused.

Committee members also approved the V.I. Education Department’s request to move $4,527,853 from its personnel and fringe benefits budget line item into the utilities and “other services” categories.

Budget Control Director Joanna Meyers-Rhymer said all but $200,000 of that $4.5 million would be put into the department’s utilities budget, which needs more money to face skyrocketing electricity costs. The department will put the remaining $200,000 toward increased special-education services and a local match needed to use $5 million in federal special education funds, Meyers-Rhymer said.

Meyers-Rhymer said the Education Department no longer needs the $4.5 million for personnel costs because it recently dismissed 75 part-time employees and lost an additional 300 full-time staff members who resigned as a result of austerity measures enacted last year.

Committee members also approved the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency’s request to redistribute $83,420 that was incorrectly listed for repair and maintenance supervisor costs into other categories: professional services ($15,640), automotive repair and maintenance ($30,000), and repair and maintenance service ($37,780).

While it was not an action item, Dowe asked for attention regarding a revenue-generating measure he had sponsored: the $1 per-passenger tax now being levied on cruise ship companies.

Since Jan. 1, the marine terminal user’s tax, which is collected by the V.I. Port Authority, has put $204,304 into the General Fund coffers, according to figures provided by Dowe.

“I said ‘yes’ to this,” Dowe said.

As recently as Jan. 24, the governor’s administration figures estimated that the Fiscal Year 2012 budget deficit still loomed near $67.5 million.

While his colleagues sought to distance themselves from the administration’s criticisms and plans, Sen. White said he was hopeful that one of the governor’s proposed revenue-generation strategies – an increase in the Gross Receipts Tax from 4.5 to 5 percent – will soon be realized.

Gov. John deJongh Jr., White and the measure’s other supporters say the tax increase will provide the collateral the government needs to borrow $120 million and close the budget gap.

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