The Senate voted to eliminate V.I. customs duties, to increase the Emergency Medical Service surcharge on phone calls and approved a slew of other legislation Tuesday and Wednesday.
The customs duties generate about $12 million per year but for more than a decade U.S. Customs and Border Protection has confiscated nearly all of it to pay for the cost of collecting them, so they do not go to the V.I. government’s available funds.
For years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection collected the duties, taking a portion for its costs, but after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, it began keeping nearly all the funds.
The St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce opposes the change out of concern the federal government could stop performing Customs preclearance or other federal responsibilities in the territory. Officials with Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s administration argued for changing the law, but to have the changes only take effect if the government is unable to reach an agreement with Customs and Border Protection. Senators amended the bill so that it only takes effect if the V.I. government terminates its current agreement with Customs.
The monthly Emergency Services Surcharge on landline and cell phone bills will double to $2 per phone number, with the extra money going to help emergency services, if one bill approved Tuesday becomes law. If enacted, it will provide funding for ambulance maintenance, supplies for the V.I. Fire Service and help get new 911 infrastructure for the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency.
When the measure was heard in committee, agency officials testified that VITEMA got about $391,000 from the surcharge last year; the Health Department got about $306,000; and the Fire Service about $300,000. VITEMA also got an additional $121,000 for 911 service. With the new law, funding will double.
Some senators opposed the bill, saying any increase was too much of a hardship.
“When you try to understate it by saying it is just a dollar, you don’t know how many customers have how much access lines. And per access line, they will pay that additional dollar,” Sen. Janette Millin Young said.
Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., the bill’s sponsor, said he understood the concern about cost but "when we call our emergency services we expect them to respond in a timely fashion."
"I understand there are some individuals who will walk up to you in the store and say. ‘I’m glad you didn’t support that,’" Francis said. "But those are the same individuals who, three times that amount, to blaze us when the ambulance isn’t working," he said. "I am asking for a dollar. Is that too much to ask? It is the cost of a bottle of water," Francis said.
The Senate also approved a bill appropriating $5 million in federal alcohol excise tax funds for air conditioning work at the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix. Mapp’s administration is asking for the money to meet the terms of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid and prevent JFL from being decertified.
Senators approved a separate appropriation of about $1 million, bringing the total for JFL air conditioning work to a bit more than $6 million. In November, CMS gave notice it planned to decertify the hospital after an inspection prompted by patient complaints found mold and dripping water from faulty air conditioning.
The CMS termination is scheduled for February if deficiencies are not corrected to the satisfaction of the federal agency.
Budget Director Nellon Bowry said the hospital needed $13 million, but with the new $5 million and an earlier appropriation, the hospital would have $6 million, which would be enough to enter a contract and start the air conditioning work.
A portion of rental income from 121 former Hovensa houses will go toward the roughly $3.1 billion GERS unfunded liability, if a measure sponsored by Sen. Kenneth Gittens and approved by the Senate Wednesday is signed into law.
The government owns 121 houses, acquired through the 2014 purchase of the former Hovensa refinery by Limetree Bay. When the bill was first heard in committee, Bowry said the government is renting 80 of the houses back to Limetree Bay for about $1.15 million per year. He did not oppose the bill but said he "strongly suggests" the Legislature reserve some of the money "because the properties need to be maintained."
On Wednesday, senators amended the bill to devote 50 percent of the revenues to GERS instead of all of the revenues.
Two bills approved in session this week affect board membership rules. One gives the V.I. Legislature approval power over three members of the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park tax-break vehicle’s governing board. The other allows the territory’s hospital governing boards to have members who work at the hospitals. The measure, sponsored by Sen. Kurt Vialet, aims to make it easier to get members for the volunteer boards, which have struggled to reach quorums.
Other legislation reprograms $1.36 million from a pilot program for frail seniors to the beleaguered Sea View Nursing Home on St. Thomas. Sea View was decertified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services this year, greatly reducing its funding until or unless it can be recertified.
Senators also approved legislation that:
– changes guardianship rules for the incapacitated, prohibiting guardians from restricting personal contacts or communications;
– gives the V.I. Board of Education and the Department of Education less – but clearer – legal regulatory authority over home schooling. It gives parents wide leeway in how they teach children but it requires certain subjects be taught, requires standardized tests in some grades, and has parents disclose who is teaching the children and their qualifications;
– requires credit unions in the territory be federally chartered and insured;
– updates the territory’s insurance laws to adopt the core standards and Model Laws and Regulations as established by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, for purposes of obtaining accreditation with the NAIC;
– tightening capital requirements for insurers, tying the requirements to risk;
– making licensing requirements for insurance agents, brokers and adjusters the same as those in the states;
– asking the Human Service Department, police and other first responders in the territory to set up a "Silver Alert System" to get word out if a senior citizen with cognitive issues goes missing;
– switching land plots donated to the Enrique Romero Nieves American Legion Post 102;
– appropriating $300,000 from the Union Arbitration Award and Government Employees Increment Fund to the Virgin Islands Waste Management Authority;
– a resolution asking the governor to develop a comprehensive program with a focus on education and awareness of contributions of people of African descent throughout the Caribbean;
– and a resolution asking urging the V.I. delegate to Congress to "conduct an inquiry into the disparate treatment of Virgin Islands National Guardsmen."
Senators approved an array of zoning changes and nominations, which are discussed in detail separately. Bills affecting tax breaks for international bank-like entities and an omnibus bill with a grab bag of new appropriations attached as amendments were also approved and will be discussed in upcoming stories.
Sen. Jean Forde was out of the territory and absent. All other senators were present.