August 3, 2005– Testimony given to Finance Committee members by representatives from the St. John Festival Committee and the Law Enforcement Planning Commission was upstaged Wednesday by the absence of Kenneth Blake, Chairman of the V.I. Carnival Committee.
Called in to give a breakdown of VICC's budget, Blake wrote senators a letter dated July 18 saying that his organization does not have to appear before the Legislature during the budget process. "With the exception of the 25th Legislature's Finance Committee, all others have acknowledged that we are correct in our position that the Legislature has no authority to call the VICC into budget hearings. Our committee is a nonprofit corporation and not a department, agency, commission, or instrumentality of the V.I. government," the letter said.
Taking exception to these remarks, Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg called the document one of "ultimate hypocrisy" because VICC owes the government at least six years' worth of back taxes. "If they owe us money for taxes, then they are not a nonprofit organization they're making a profit off of something," Donastorg said. "And, if we're giving them money to operate, then they have a duty to appear before us to defend their budget. Not coming in for these hearings is an affront to the authority of the Senate."
Donastorg added that Carnival seems to have been monopolized by Blakeand is getting "worse and worse" every year because of it. "The chairman of the VICC has the ability to be chairman for life, and as such, Blake has been re-elected for another term. But it seems that he is the only one who determines whether he is in good standing with the community that's a dilemma," Donastorg said.
Garnering the support of fellow senators with his argument, Donastorg further stated that he is in the process of introducing legislation to solve this problem. "My measure will seek to make the structure of the Carnival committee similar to that of Trinidad's where the Department of Tourism runs the event," Donastorg said. "The VICC is the most defiant organization in V.I. history Carnival is owned by the people, and Kenneth Blake is suggesting that he is the only one who can run the event. That is also an affront to the community."
Concurring with Donastorg, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson also took the position that the Tourism Department should play a more active role in running the territory's annual festivities.
Nelson then addressed his remarks to representatives from St. John's Festival and Cultural Organization, which presented its 2006 budget request Wednesday. "Unlike the St. Thomas committee, you guys seem to be transparent and accountable," Nelson said to organization president Leona E. Smith. "But the Tourism Department should play a more active role in taking care of some of the funding for these events, and should be more of a presence when it comes to organizing them."
While Smith did agree with Nelson, she also added that there was no way to extract a fee from the department for festivities. "Both the Tourism Department and the Hotel Association benefit substantially from the activities we conduct but we have no way of making them pay anything to us. For example, we have to pay for advertising in a tourism-driven market they should be responsible corporate citizens and pay for the bulk of that."
Smith added that that the government's past inability to provide appropriation money has also let the organization down, contributing to a $91,000 debt compounded from festivities held in 2003.
Out of the approximately $200,000 appropriated for the organization this year, Smith said the she has only received $75,000. Smith added that if the organization had received its full allotment, the debt would currently be taken care of, and the organization would be well on its way to achieving its proposed goals for 2006.
Because of this, Smith said that the organization is requesting an advance payment of the allotment for next fiscal year. "The government has a tendency to give us our money weeks after some of our festivities [specifically after the Fourth of July Celebration]. This practice has caused us to lose efficiency and as a result of historic late payments, our members have had to use their personal credit cards to purchase whatever goods and services are necessary to carry out community events."
However, Smith admitted that part of the problem can be attributed to under-budgeting by the organization. "For festivities held in St. John in 2003, for example, we didn't factor in the cost for bathroom rental for the children's Village. Because we didn't have the money to pay for that service, it has become part of our compounded debt," Smith said.
Following Smith's testimony, The Finance Committee also received a budget request from the Virgin Islands Heritage Institute for $133, 670a $69, 070 increase from last year's allotment.
Senators present for Wednesday's hearings were Craig W. Barshinger, Jn Baptiste, Roosevelt C. David, Liston Davis, Donastorg, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Nelson, and Juan Figueroa-Serville.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.