It’s the figurative equivalent of accidentally dropping a dollar on the street — times more than $15.9 million.
U.S. Virgin Islanders owed money from unclaimed wages, legal settlements, insurance payouts, utility deposits and refunds, gift certificates, retirement and old bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, money orders, travelers checks and more have amassed a fortune in unclaimed funds.
Every autumn, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office is supposed to compile and publish a list of this abandoned property, excluding real estate like land and houses. That publication hasn’t happened since 2012, however.
It’s a staffing and formatting issue, said Glendina Matthew, acting director of the Division of Banking, Insurance, and Financial Regulation, during a Senate hearing Thursday before the Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Protection. Businesses and other institutions are required to report unclaimed property but until recently did so without a unified format. This led to a backlog of data entry.
The Lieutenant Governor’s Office has proposals from two non-governmental vendors to tackle the complicated problem, she said.
“The division has been faced with a number of challenges over the years as it relates to unclaimed property listings. This was due to not having sufficient human resources or a database to compile reports received,” Matthew said. “In the absence of a database, the staff of the division is required to expend exorbitant amount of time to manually enter the data received.”
Buying an outside system was too expensive, she said, and building one in-house lacked support. The more they looked at it, the more they realized they needed an internal-external hybrid. Some of the information needing to be processed is so old that it is on computer floppy disks.
“The office of the Lieutenant Governor recognizes the importance of this program and the need to reunite owners with their property. As such, we will make every effort to identify every available funding to address the needs of the program,” she said.
Matthew and team have audited accounts from 2009 to the end of March this year and have unaudited data going back to 2004. What is unclear, they said, was how much more unclaimed money was out there.
$15.9 million sits in escrow accounts overseen by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. But an unknown amount also floats in the territory’s General Fund. Matthew said Thursday the Finance Department would better know how much more was out there.
Matthew and other testifiers were at the Legislature to speak to a new bill aimed at modernizing the unclaimed property law, requiring an online database users could access at any time. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger, who said the lack of accounting and accountability was troubling.
“I’m very much concerned and confused that we don’t have an account of how much of this money is in the General Fund,” Francis Heyliger said.
Also testifying was Deputy Inspector General Delia Thomas, who said her office stands ready to audit and investigate any element of the program should the need arise.
“I want to note that the office of the Virgin Islands Inspector General has not inspected or audited the abandoned property entrusted to the Office of the Lieutenant Governor. Therefore, we cannot comment on the handling of those property and their administration,” she said. “Also, any potential implication of the proposed changes to the law should be addressed by the Department of Justice.”