Jan. 4, 2003 – The territory's elected leaders may get their raises, but they will do so at a high price — the loss of respect and confidence of a growing number of their constituents. Protest meetings are planned on St. Thomas and St. Croix over the next three days, and major groups are speaking out in opposition.
– The St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers is the latest to do so. Its president, Vernelle de Lagarde, said on Saturday that the teachers union has called two meetings on Sunday at Palms Court Harborview Hotel to spearhead a movement to challenge the raises. At 4 p.m., labor leaders are to meet. At 5 p.m., all AFT members, the clergy and the general public are invited to come together.
De Lagarde said the AFT will protest the increases at the ceremony scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Monday at Emancipation Garden for the swearing-in of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to his second term and Lt. Gov.-elect Vargrave Richards, to his first.
"Our union has never backed away from challenges," de Lagarde said, and the union is now issuing one of its own. "Our challenge to you, our elected leaders," she said, "is to prove us wrong."
– A meeting with St. Croix labor leaders, led by Terrence Nelson of Our Virgin Islands Labor Union, is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday at Island Center to challenge and organize a protest against the raises.
– And at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, another meeting is scheduled at Palms Court Harborview. Jason Budsan, leader of "Citizens for a Fiscally Responsible Government," a self-described ad hoc group of V.I. residents and taxpayers, says everyone is invited to attend and join in planning a march and rally against the salary increase. Anyone interested in expressing "enough is enough" is welcome, Budsan said.
Meanwhile, the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce has taken a stand against the raises. Its leadership wrote Turnbull this week asking him to veto the legislation passed by the 24th Legislature in its final session, on Dec. 23, approving substantial raises for him, them and the lieutenant governor.
Saying the chamber's telephone system has been inundated by phone calls protesting the raises, the business group's leaders told Turnbull the raises were inappropriate at a time when unemployment is 12 percent on St. Croix and 7 percent on St. Thomas.
The chamber letter pointed out that the construction projects the administration and the senators continue to cite as revenue sources could not possibly bring in any revenue for at least another year. (See "Berry, David defend their votes for pay hikes".)
The Legislature voted to increase senators' pay to $85,000, a raise of nearly 31percent over the current $65,000. The increase was included in legislation sent to the Senate by Turnbull that also raises the governor's salary to $135,000 from $80,000, an increase of nearly 41 percent; and that of the lieutenant governor's, to $115,000 from $75,000, a hike of nearly 35 percent. The governor has the options of approving the bill, vetoing it or allowing it to become law without his signature.
This week, as last, burgeoning resentment against what many perceive as a betrayal of their vote for the new Democratic majority has dominated radio talk shows. On Saturday, however, Sen. Roosevelt David continued to defend the action on his WVWI radio program. His show this weekend received a number of calls from persons endorsing the increases.
Teachers say share the loaf equitably
The AFT's de Lagarde, speaking from her home on Saturday morning, said she is incensed by what she and many feel is betrayal by the officials they voted for. "The AFT challenges those in power to listen to the voice of the voting populace — those who have asked that we reduce the number of Senate seats, not increase their salaries," she said.
She also said: "With over $1.5 million from senators', governor's and lieutenant governor's salaries, we can hire over 50 teachers, 60 school nurses, 90 paraprofessional, or 85 support staff personnel. With the almost $400,000 annual increases, we can hire over 15 teachers or school nurses and approximately 25 paraprofessional or support staff at the present salaries."
De Lagarde said when a vacancy occurs in a school's support staff, the position is removed from that school's budget and is not replaced. "That is why you might see one secretary for a school of 500 students," she said.
Further, she said, negotiated 2002-03 school year salary increases have not been fully paid. They were supposed to have taken effect on Sept. 1 she said, "so already it is starting another retro," a reference to money owed retroactively.
The deplorable state of the territory's public education system has been long and extensively documented, from lack of teachers and supplies to loss of accreditation to rock-bottom scores by pupils in national testing.
Expressing teachers' frustration, de Lagarde said the message the educators are getting from the senators is this:
"We are not living in a troubled economy. Education is not the No. 1 priority. There is money for those of us who have to put up with you to retain our seats. The people of the V.I. need to understand that these full-time jobs are very demanding, and our increases must compensate us for our long hours. We are team players, and the masses must understand."
De Lagarde pointed out, "Our members participate in all parades — including inaugural — with the students voluntarily marching and playing in the bands which the teachers instruct after school hours with little or no compensation."
She urged everyone concerned about the raises and what they signify to come out Sunday for the 5 p.m. meeting. "The AFT urges you, the people of the V.I., to stand for something and not accept just anything," she said. "Voice your concern in reference to Bill 24-0373, the measure to which the raises were attached as an amendment. As a labor organization, we are not about taking bread out of workers' mouths, but a hefty and untimely loaf can fatten some while most fight for the crumbs."
To those taking the oath of office on Monday, de Lagarde said: "Share the loaf equitably. The challenge is yours as you take your oath of office to serve the people of the V. I. with dignity and integrity, knowing that they are well-fed."
Inaugural events are planned all day Monday on St. Thomas, Tuesday on St. John and Wednesday on St. Croix. Preceding the swearing-in ceremony on Monday, an ecumenical worship service will be held at 8 a.m. at Christ Church Methodist, with a military parade along Veterans Drive to follow at 10 a.m. WTJX-TV will broadcast the day's activities live. For a complete schedule, see "Inaugural schedule: 3 islands, 3 days, 6 balls." Government employees on all three islands have been give administrative leave to attend the events.
Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull stated several weeks ago that the territory's fiscal situation is "in crisis." It is not known whether Turnbull and Richards, in their addresses to be delivered on Monday, will shed light on that situation.
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