Feb. 26, 2004 – The Senate Rules Committee approved a bill conferring peace officer status on investigative agents of the Inspector General's Office on Thursday morning — after amending the legislation to specify that the officers would not be eligible for early retirement.
Inspector General Steven van Beverhoudt, who has tried for years to get the peace-officer status for his office, was grinning as he left the Senate chambers. He said he did not think early retirement was an issue for the two officers he plans to designate. "One has worked for about five years and the other, about 12," he said. "Neither has paid the additional 2 percent they would pay for early retirement."
The committee tabled the latest proposal to create a central grants agency, at the request of Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Rita J. Howard, assistant Education commissioner.
The panel also unanimously approved the nomination of Bernard Paiewonsky for a second term on the University of the Virgin Islands board of trustees.
"We need the ability to serve search warrants," van Beverhoudt told the Finance Committee last summer. "We can't put people's lives in jeopardy. All the investigative arms of the federal government have agents with peace-officer status." A big bonus of that status, he said, is that it allows his agency access to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, where his officers can check criminal records.
No senator expressed reservations about passing the bill, but all agreed that the designated peace officers should not be considered "hazardous duty" personnel and therefore eligible for retirement after 20 years.
Senators Thursday were eager not to put any further stress on the fragile fiscal condition of the Government Employees Retirement System.
Sen. Lorraine Berry stated: "I will support the bill but not with an early retirement option."
That GERS is in trouble is not news. During the agency's fiscal year 2004 budget hearing before the Senate Finance Committee last year Laurence Bryan, GERS administrator, said the system at that time had a deficit of $731.7 million.
Sen. Ronald Russell successfully moved an amendment classifying the Inspector General's Office peace officers in a section of the V.I. Code where "hazardous duty" would not apply. The amendment, which was passed unanimously, made a similar provision for V.I. Lottery enforcement officers.
The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.
Mills asked the committee to hold the central grants agency proposal until the administration could confer with the U. S. Department of the Interior, from whom he said the governor has solicited "technical assistance."
Sen. Roosevelt David, Rules Committee chair, noting the bill has "been around since the 22nd Legislature," asked Mills how he could request this "when I'm hearing federal funds are going back, being returned." Berry, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, was also upset at Mills' request. Jn Baptiste was not present on Thursday to defend his legislation.
Objections to administration holding pattern
Before joining her colleagues in voting unanimously to hold the bill, Berry told Mills: "I will agree to hold this only because it has triggered the executive branch to get technical assistance. But you can't hold these bills like this. I have bills I've been holding for six months awaiting information from Finance and the Lieutenant Governor's Office."
The legislation, intended to centralize the grant-application process, would:
– Identify discretionary projects.
– Assess eligibility criteria, applications, requirements, deadlines and other funding program factors.
– Act as a clearinghouse for identifying appropriate projects, assessing priorities, and coordinating and evaluating programs.
– Expedite funding and completion of projects in a timely manner.
Mill told the senators the proposed grants agency could represent a duplication of effort.
At present, he said, "there is, in fact, a federal grants management unit within the Office of Management and Budget." The unit, he said, also handles single audits and "corrective actions" regarding the compliance agreement between the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Education. He said the unit, with five employees, is headed by Claudette Farrington — whom Gov. Charles W. Turnbull removed as Internal Revenue Bureau director in July of 2000.
Howard was sharply critical of the proposal. She said the Education Department "doesn't see the receipt of federal dollars as a major issue" at present. "More critical issues" not addressed by the bill, she said, are federal funding requirements for "matching funds and maintenance of effort."
"Maintenance of effort" means basically that local matching funds must be maintained to continue receiving federal funds, she said.
To illustrate the point, she cited a $750,000 grant which was lost because "the matching requirement couldn't be met." And she said the bill doesn't address this "very critical matter."
After raising several procedural and financial concerns about the proposed agency, Howard said "two of the cross-cutting issues of the compliance agreement are financial management and property management and procurement."
Under questioning, Mills said his agency prepares the single audits. "If we don't provide timely single audits, the federal funding would literally dry up," he said. He said the major issue in the financial management system is training — something he has stressed before in Senate meetings. There are about 150 employees total in all agencies "some in program areas and some in fiscal," he said.
David was not impressed. "I hear you loud and clear," he said. "but the federal funds are still going back. Maybe you need fewer than 150 employees." He asked, "What timelines do we have on this? What does all this mean? I am very unsettled about holding this bill."
Berry reminded Mills that a centralized grants agency was part of the "five-year plan which has never been implemented."
Financial management system faulted
Committee members quizzed Mills about the OMB financial management system. Sen. Ronald Russell said the system is "archaic and needs to be replaced" and that "there are two serious elements here" — a financial management system and a property management system.
"This government has to get a system in place," Sen. Louis Hill said. "We used to have only $5 millions in federal grants now we have millions more. We need a financial management system and a procurement system."
Finance Commissioner Bernice Turnbull reviewed administration efforts to update the system, which she said was put into place in 1989. She said a "needs analysis" is being worked on to determine the "best systems for the V.I., to match the territory's needs with what's out there."
Sen. Carlton Dowe was more interested in education — specifically capital projects for the territory's schools that lie dormant. Having sponsored legislation giving 25 percent of lottery proceeds to education, he said: "It's not being used."
"The grass at Lockhart is higher than you or me," he said. "The air-conditioning was finally installed at Bertha C. Boschulte, and now it won't go off. It's on 24 hours a day. And the lottery funds are sitting in Finance."
Russell, who chairs the Senate Education and Youth Committee, said that panel is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m. Monday.
The Rules Committee, on a motion by Russell, voted to hold the grant agency bill for further study.
The committee unanimously approved Bernard P
aiewonsky's re-appointment to the UVI board of trustees. Paiewonsky, who lives in Bethesda, Md., said he has chaired the board's development committee for the last seven years and is now chairing its planning committee. He said serving on the UVI board provides "a rare opportunity for me to give back to the Virgin Islands."
Paiewonsky is the son of Ralph Paiewonsky, the territory's ninth appointed governor, who served in 1961-69.
The committee was scheduled to reconvene in the afternoon to hear several other bills.
Committee members present for the morning deliberations were Sens. Berry, Douglas Canton, David, Dowe, Hill and Russell. Sen. David Jones was absent.
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