July 23, 2005 – Talk about a good work day. Senate Finance Committee members started the day over an hour late Monday and ended it a couple of hours early.
One can't pin the early ending on the senators, though; the power went out in the St. Croix Legislative Hall.
The senators did get to hear from Valencio Jackson, chairman of the Public Services Commission, which oversees WAPA and Innovative Telephone, before the power and phones went out in the building. There must be some irony there, but it was too dark to see it.
As far as starting late, the Avis took the senators to task in a Tuesday editorial for not starting meetings on time. The newspaper was polite, but what they were saying was that so-called "Crucian time" is just an excuse for being sloppy.
Sen. Ronald Russell said that there was "validity" in the Avis' concerns. The Source could add that when people tell someone they will be at a certain place at a certain time, they either honor their word or they don't.
The Avis editorial apparently had no effect on the senators. On Wednesday, a half hour after the senate budget hearings were to start, scheduled testifiers were looking for a place to get out of the heat because senators still had not arrived.
Of course, the senators expect everyone to show them respect. An Avis reporter received a lecture from a Sergeant at Arms on Thursday concerning his wearing flip-flops into the Senate hearing. The day before, a Source reporter had been told he could not attend hearings in shorts. This is not new. An Avis photographer was escorted not long ago from the chambers because someone did not approve of the top she was wearing.
Should the senators not be focused more on education and crime instead of how spiffy the people in the gallery are dressed? It seems like an issue of show over substance.
But on to the real show.
Monday, July 18
In the abbreviated session on St. Croix, senators did hear from Jackson and voiced their support of him in light of Gov. Charles Turnbull's action to appoint a replacement for him. (See "PSC Asks to Increase Budget 15 Percent").
Senators also heard from Maria Cabret, presiding judge of the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands, who reportedly added $1.2 million to her $25 million budget request after hearing a rosy forecast for the V.I. economy. The additional monies would go for pay raises to employees of the court.
The 6 p.m Committee of the Whole meeting on block grants was cancelled because of the power problems.
Finance Hearings moved to St. Thomas, where the Legislature building did have power. Senators began to explore differences between what agencies and departments were requesting and what they had been advised to request by the Office of Management and Budget, a subject that would become a theme for the week. (See "Veterans, Health Clinic Ask for More Money").
In the evening, senators held their St. Thomas hearing on block grants.
Wednesday, July 20
The action was split between St. Croix and St. Thomas. In the morning, the Finance Committee heard from the Department of Property and Procurement and got information about the Business and Commercial Property Revolving Fund, Transportation Revolving Fund, Central Warehouse Revolving Fund and Insurance on Government Buildings.
In the morning session chaired by Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Property and Procurement Commissioner Marc A. Biggs said, "The salaries of the employees need to be adjusted for fairness, parity and most importantly, the avoidance of impropriety."
Biggs, according to a press release from the Senate, said his department is asking for $4.6 million from the general fund this fiscal year; $1.5 million from the business and commercial fund; and $298,102 from the indirect cost fund.
Biggs told senators that the department's problem paying its WAPA bill was an "untimely disbursement from the Office of Management and Budget." (How a resident would like to get off from paying her power bill with such an excuse.)
In the afternoon session, chaired by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, members heard from Clifford Graham, executive director of the V.I. Housing Finance Authority. He testified that the lack of funding through the Housing Trust Fund and the elimination of the annual appropriation made it difficult for the authority to plan and execute its affordable-housing initiatives.
In the evening on St. Thomas, the Government Operations and Consumer Protection Committee heard testimony on the operation of the V.I. Waste Management Authority.
(See "Senators Frustrated by WMA Lack of Progress").
The Finance Committee was back on St. Croix hearing testimony from Harold Willocks, the territory's chief public defender. Discussion broke down to the basic question about the need for a public defender's office. (See "Public Defender Asks to Double Budget").
After the public defender discussion, the St. Croix Crucian Christmas Festival Organization came on, and things really go interesting.
The senators had plenty of questions after looking at the organization's finances and lack of filing reports. However, the big news to the residents of St. Croix is that the Christmas Festival will be held in Frederiksted for the third year in a row. Christiansted seems to have fallen out of the formula.
Dean Plaskett, commissioner of Planning and Natural Resources, kicked off the hearings on St. Croix — although "kick" might be too active of a verb to describe his reading of a 27-page report. However, in the words of Sen. Roosevelt David, the report was "very impressive."
One could quibble that some of the report's figures for last year didn't match what the Source has for last year's DPNR budget projections. However, projections and estimates deserve to be given some flex room. (See "DPNR Commissioner Presents Budget for FY 2006").
Plaskett was also questioned about the Comprehensive Land Use Plan.
Sen. Roosevelt David said he would not hold his breath waiting for that plan to come into play.
Sen. Usie Richards responded, "Please do not hold your breath too often. The ambulances are slow here, and I am not disposed to doing any mouth-to-mouth resuscitation."
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