Oct. 26, 2007 — A panel of five St. Croix senators and Senator-at-Large Carmen Wesselhofts representative Kim Lyons fielded sometimes sharp questions about economic development, crime and other issues at a forum Thursday night at St. Croixs Carambola Beach Resort.
The questions came from members of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce and the St. Croix Hotel and Tourism Association, who jointly put on the forum. They covered a wide swath of issues affecting economic development on St. Croix, like attracting hotel developers, fixing island infrastructure and reducing crime.
Omer ErSelcuk read the questions. ErSelcuk is president of Seaborne Airlines, chairman of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Hotel Association.
The first question was about the territorys Economic Development Commission and the program of very generous tax breaks the EDC implements.
The existing EDC program is languishing because of IRS and U.S. Treasury rulings, ErSelcuk read. What can the Legislature do to revitalize it?
Sen. James Weber III disputed the premise of the question.
I dont think it is languishing, Weber said. I think it is a misconception that they are not coming. We have seen the flight of businesses, but the flight is because of the IRS. And our congresswoman (Delegate Donna M. Christensen) has done a great job in putting a stop to that. At the economic summit several weeks ago, the keynote speaker was (billionaire investor) Allen Stanford. That he is coming here I think is a great indication, to know people will come.
Senate President Usie Richards said understanding the original intent of the Legislature in creating the EDC would give a better understanding of whether and how well it is working currently.
There is a need to revamp the program, Richards said. I have concerns about the number of tax breaks. I have concern for the number of companies coming into the territory but providing limited opportunities for our residents.
The programs success should be judged by whether it delivered its intended employment and social benefits to the territory, Richards said.
Sen. Terrence Positive Nelson took a similar tack.
My concern is with companies that abuse the program, Nelson said. The program is not meant to go on forever after 30 or 40 years. Thats not what it was designed for. It is meant to help companies start up. We dont mind extending that sometimes, but we need to remember thats not the purpose.
Nelson noted the program was designed to promote the creation of good jobs.
All Im asking for is a fair shake so Virgin Islanders can get training to take good jobs, not just entry-level ones, he said. The EDC fiasco occurred, but that occurred because abuses happened.
A set of questions asked what the Senate could do to eradicate blight, improve the islands infrastructure and eliminate obstacles to the development of hotels on St. Croix.
The sad fact is most of your undeveloped properties downtown are owned by some very prominent individuals who wont fix them, Weber said regarding blight in Frederiksted and Christiansted. Some may belong to members of the Chamber of Commerce or the St. Croix Hotel Association.
Often, too, there are properties with six or more heirs who cannot all agree on what to do with the property, Weber said. Nelson said it would be good if some the old buildings could be restored rather than only building new projects in pristine parts of the island.
In Christiansted, he said, the old Danish hospital, I could see that making a very nice upscale hotel. I think we could take that and restore it.
Asked if the development-permit process can be sped up or made easier, several senators said perhaps, but that permits were not really the problem.
The CZM (Coastal Zone Management) process is designed to prevent uncontrolled development, Weber said. It may not be the ideal or most perfect process, but it was put in place for a reason. You have other islands that dont have those impediments, and they build where they want and its a mess.
Richards suggested the issue of permits is a red herring, and the real issue is the investors involved in high-profile developments — such as a proposed casino and resort in Estate Williams and Punch — who have not applied for permits yet.
To me is not a project until there is some action, he said. We have had a lot of talk and little action. We are told we need to get the permits through, and 10 months later we still dont have application. We need to push these individuals to get these projects off their back burners and into action so we can have hotel development on St. Croix.
Sen. Ronald Russell said there are obstacles to be overcome, offering a personal anecdote.
I owned some property in town and I wanted to develop it, he said. The historical commission and I had a little difference of opinion, and now the property is still undeveloped. I am sure other property owners have encountered the same frustrations I have and have thrown up their hands.
Russell said he is hopeful for the future.
I believe the (deJongh) administration has begun to address these obstacles, he said.
The Chamber of Commerce had gotten several complaints from businesses about the Labor Department, ErSelcuk said.
Several businesses are saying theyve been treated unfairly by the Labor Department when theyve discharged someone on reasonable grounds, ErSelcuk said. Some businesses are apparently saying they were pressured by Labor officials to pay settlements or face frivolous lawsuits, he continued.
You use the term, on reasonable grounds, but who is determining what is reasonable grounds? Nelson said. I do believe the process works. You have to be employed at least six months to even use the (wrongful-discharge complaint) process at Labor. I think the Labor Department is fair.
Disdainful sounds of huh and "tchhhh" popped out of the audience of business owners at this statement. Nelson said business owners should document all problems with employees as they happen, so it is clear to everyone — including the employee — what is going on.
Youre speaking to someone who worked in the labor field, Nelson said. And many, many times there is no document trail at all. So I advise you to follow the process and document everything, and we can talk at a later date to see if you still have any problems. Remember: An employee has to work six months before they can use the process at all. As a probationary period, I even believe six months is too long, to be honest. Most places probationary periods last 90 days.
Russell largely agreed.
The Virgin Islands is one of only a few districts with a wrongful-discharge section in the law, he said. It may not be implemented perfectly, but it is there for a reason. In most states, you have more options if you lose a job. It may have become unbalanced over the years because of politics. Maybe it is time to look at reform. But the fact employers might feel there is a bias doesnt mean there is a bias. What is frivolous is relative. What is frivolous to one man is bread and butter to feed his children to another.
The senators preferred other solutions when asked whether stiffer mandatory penalties could be adopted for handgun crimes.
"The currently mandated sentence for felony gun crimes is 15 to 20 years, Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste said. Notwithstanding that, we continue to see a high rate of violent crime.
Baptiste said he has and will support bills to put more police officers on the street.
Our laws are very disjointed, Russell said. We h
ave mandatory penalties that are stiffer than anywhere and others that are quite relaxed. But mandatory penalties are not in favor in judicial circles now.
Many recent studies showed mandatory sentencing guidelines to be ineffective and to create new problems in their wake, Russell said. He offered an outside-the-box suggestion for fighting crime.
I have been promoting that the governor issue an executive order that would relax the fourth amendment (of the U.S. Constitution) and allow police to search cars at random, Russell said. Its extreme. The fourth amendment is a core value. But I think we are under siege, and I think that especially on St. Croix we cannot afford to not do something extraordinary to deal with this gun problem.
None of the other senators supported this idea, citing constitutional problems.
All St. Croix senators were at the event with the exception of Sens. Juan Figueroa-Serville and Neville James.
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