Feb. 17, 2004 – The Senate Finance Committee was as notable for what it didn't address as for what it did during a hearing Tuesday on St. Thomas.
The committee approved three leases and a bill appropriating $200,000 from the St. John Capital Fund to the Cadastral Division of the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.
But the senators voted to remove other items from the day's agenda:
– A bill to provide a $7 million loan to the University of the Virgin Islands to begin construction of its Research and Technology Park.
– A bill to appropriate $250,000 from the General Fund to the Education Department to hire fiscal officers for the territory's public high schools.
The Research and Technology Park measure, which was voted off the agenda unanimously, provided for the loan to come out of the $65 million in recent bond proceeds earmarked to finance economic development initiatives on St. Croix.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone made the motion to remove the bill appropriating funding for the school fiscal officers. It passed on a 4-2 vote. Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, the bill's sponsor, and Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the Finance Committee chair, opposed the motion; Sens. Roosevelt David, Louis Hill, Malone and Ronald Russell voter for it; Sen. Luther Renee abstained.
"There is nowhere in the General Fund that we're going to find money to fund this," Malone said in support of his motion. "The issue is not that we don't believe we need fiscal officers. We would be writing a check that would bounce."
He said he will not "play politics" and appropriate money to fund legislation when he knows that the money is not there.
The committee approved the transfer of funds to the Cadastral Division after taking testimony from Tax Assessor Roy Martin and two St. John residents struggling with land boundary issues.
The Cadastral Division is responsible for the review and registration of all surveys of real property in the territory. The appropriation is to fund the updating and correcting of the cadastral maps of St. John. According to the testimony, a number of landowners on the island claim that their property has been encroached upon and that land has been taken away illegally from their families.
"The government through this legislation is moving in the right direction," Martin said.
Hill, however, pointed out that money had previously been appropriated to the Lieutenant Governor's Office for updating records. He said this cost should have been included in the fiscal budget for the office. "I am very reluctant to approve any piecemeal legislation handed to this legislature," he said. "I am not prepared to support this legislation."
The government is continuing to operate under the fiscal year 2003 budget, since Gov. Charles W. Turnbull on Dec. 23 vetoed the FY 2004 budget that had been passed by the Legislature in November.
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd, who sponsored the bill, said it deals with the issue that St. Johnians are losing property handing down through generations because of improper marking of boundaries by surveyors. "Boundaries that were supposed to be in one area ended up acres away," Liburd, a St. John resident, said. "Persons ended up losing their properties. This tries to bring some semblance of order and relief."
Donastorg suggested asking Congress to authorize a federal investigation into the matter.
Cedrick Lewis, an administrator of an estate on St. John, said the island needs a "complete cadastral survey and a federal investigation due to the magnitude of fraud involving surveys and due to fraud where title insurance is apparent."
Baptiste said he could not support the cadastral legislation at the expense of the accreditation of the territory's public high schools. He said the money that goes into the St. John Capital Improvement Fund comes from the General Fund and noted that the money proposed for the schools was only $50,000 more than what was appropriated for the Cadastral Division.
"Where do our priorities lie?" Baptiste asked his colleagues, adding that a commitment was made to the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, which provides the accreditation for the territory's schools. Middle States officials had suggested that the schools have fiscal officers as part of efforts to give them more control of their finances.
"If we say education is a priority, let's get serious and get it done," Baptiste said.
The appropriation was approved on a 5-1 vote. Hill voted against the measure and Baptiste was absent for the vote. The measure will now go to the Rules Committee.
The leases approved on Tuesday are to Ersdale Joseph for four acres of land for food crop production; to Terrance Bryan for 10 acres of land for livestock farming; and to the Lions Club of St. Croix for the building of a den on 0.6 acre of land in Estate Anna's Hope.
All seven committee members were present at the hearing: Sens. Baptiste, David, Donastorg, Hill, Malone, Renee and Russell. Also present was Sen. Liburd, who is not a member of the committee.
Editor's note: The Source mistakenly reported that no one from the University of the Virgin Islands was present to testify at the hearing. However, three people were present: Malcolm C. Kirwan, executive director of the Research and Technology Park, Denise Kurg, special assistant to executive director,and Patrick O'Donnell, capital projects director for UVI.
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