July 12, 2005 — The second day of the Senate's regular session began and ended in dispute, as legislators disagreed on bills relating to the transfer of 60 acres on Water Island to the V.I. Housing Finance Authority, the establishment of the Motor Vehicle Bureau as an autonomous entity and amendments made to revise the Moderate Income Affordable Housing Act of 1990.
Although a bill calling for the transfer of 60 acres of land on Water Island to be transferred to the Housing Finance Authority for the development of affordable housing was approved Tuesday, senators were concerned that implementing such a measure provoked racial debate (See "Senate Scales Back Water Island Housing Plan").
"Our residents should be allowed to live anywhere they want to," Sen. Celestino White Sr. said, adding that some community members were uncomfortable with the economic distinction between Water Island residents and those moving in from St. Thomas.
"Water Island shouldn't be exclusive to just rich folks," Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said in response. "This is not a race issue . It should be an economic issue."
Sen. Craig Barshinger, who first offered opposition to the bill, additionally stated that such housing may produce enclaves based on racial and economic privilege, essentially leading to the development of homogenized societies. Consequently, Barshinger proposed an alternative solution — asking affordable-housing developers to build one out of every seven units for moderate-income residents.
"This will make every community diverse," Barshinger said.
Barshinger, as well as other senators, also said he believed certain factors relating to the bill had not been considered. "Have there been steps to ensure that this land will be conducive for development? Are there support systems in place for this development? I don't think so," Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville said.
Sen. Louis P. Hill echoed these remarks by saying that land to be used for development has not yet been identified by Housing Finance Authority, and that the availability of the land for development, as well as the ability of the government to build affordable housing, have also not been considered.
Sen. Neville James concluded that Water Island should be left as it is because the government has issues that require more immediate consideration.
Despite these comments, however, all senators did agree that more affordable housing units were needed in the territory, and they subsequently approved the measure.
Those in support of the bill were Sens. White, Barshinger, Hill, Nelson, Lorraine Berry, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Shawn Michael Malone, Usie Richards, and Ronald Russell.
Those not in favor were Sens. James and Roosevelt David.
Figueroa-Serville abstained from voting.
Motor Vehicle Bureau
In a surprise move, Donastorg special ordered a bill to the Senate's agenda for consideration from the Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Protection. The bill, which has been held in committee since the beginning of June — and considered three times in previous years — seeks to establish the Motor Vehicle Bureau as an agency separate from the Department of Public Safety. (See "Senate Considers Bill to Fix Motor Vehicle Bureau"). This drew heavy opposition from other legislators.
"I do like this bill, and I think that it has the right intent to correct the problems we're experiencing with the MVB," Russell said. "But I wanted the bill to stay in committee so that it could be further revised. By special ordering it today, we're not going to be able to make necessary compromises needed for the legislation. This is problematic."
Senators were concerned about some of the language in the bill. The measure repeatedly said that a separate MVB would be considered as a department, and that its director would be regarded as a commissioner. Additionally, all employees and other staff necessary for running the department would be subject to appointment by the governor.
"This is the same thing as we have now," Hill said. "It's the same kind of conflict within the chain of command. The director will have no control. If we're going to fix this situation let's fix it completely."
Hill was also concerned about whether an annual deposit of $1 million to a separate MVB fund would be enough to cover the operating costs of a new MVB entity. "Has this been studied to determine whether more money was necessary for personnel, resources and supplies?" Hill asked.
Other senators supported an alternative plan set up by Public Safety Commissioner Elton Lewis. That plan, proposed in committee, favored the consolidation of the department, rather than separation, and called for the establishment of a revolving fund so the MVB could have its own budget.
"This will make a permanent deposit for a funding source without the MVB having to come back to the Legislature for money," Berry said.
Donastorg offered amendments to change the disputed language within the bill, and he accepted a deal proposed by Russell to send the bill back to committee for revision if the amendments were adopted.
The bill was sent back to committee with the support of Sens. Barshinger, Berry, Figueroa-Serville, Hill, James, Nelson, Richards and Russell.
Those opposed to sending the bill back to committee were Sens. David, Donastorg, Jn. Baptiste, Malone and White.
Moderate Income Affordable Housing
Voting on amendments offered by White to accompany the approval of a bill to revise the Moderate Income Affordable Housing Act of 1990 (See "Senators Approve Changes to Cut Low-Income Housing Costs") led to significant irresolution, with senators not knowing exactly what they ended up voting for.
White introduced measures to enforce tax exemptions for subcontractors, but he was challenged by Richards, who proposed an alternative amendment. Richards' amendment was adopted by the body and added to the bill.
White, unhappy with the vote, moved for the senators to re-consider his amendment at the end of the session, opening another vote to bring the bill back to its original format, prior to any amendments that had been made.
At this point, senators became confused unsure of whether they were voting on the amendments or re-consideration of the entire bill itself and engaged in a heated debate regarding what exactly was going on.
Richards, annoyed by the delay, moved to adjourn the meeting and was supported by the majority of his colleagues.
After the meeting was adjourned, many senators tried to get the Senate to reconvene after they discovered the housing bill was still on the floor for consideration. The bill was not passed and will come before the Senate again in August.
EDC Reform and Small Business Incubators Enterprise Act
Instituting measures to stimulate the local economy, senators unanimously approved bills calling for Economic Development Commission Reform and small business growth. (See "EDC Reform Bill Clears Committee" and "Bill to Help Small Businesses Receives Unanimous Approval in Committee").
According to Berry, the EDC bill was generated to:
– create opportunities for residents who want to open a business and receive a higher amount of EDC benefits;
– implement a tier system in order to improve qualifications for loans;
– enhance the opportunity for EDC beneficiaries to make loans to
– provide measures to stimulate the building of retirement homes, which would help to persuade more individuals to come to the territory to live;
– effectively close loopholes present in previous EDC legislation.
An amendment offered by Richards limited the amount of benefits granted to entities re-applying for EDC benefits. The amendment was unanimously approved.
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