In a marathon meeting that lasted into Wednesday evening, the members the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee acted on nominations to the Real Estate Appraisers board, the Real Estate Commission, and the V.I. Port Authority board at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
They also approved a handful of bills, but couldn’t deal with three very important ones concerning gangs, establishing a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control, and tracking and monitoring sex offenders because they didn’t make it out of the Public Safety, Homeland Security and Justice Committee: that committee didn’t have a quorum when it met Monday.
The senators grilled Robert O’Connor Jr., who was renominated to the Port Authority board, on various issues but one particular concern kept resurfacing.
“You have to walk in the rain to the plane,” Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve complained, referring to the lack of jet bridges at the territory’s airports.
O’Connor said the Port Authority is not in the position to fund such improvements. He said it would cost more than $20 million to reconfigure Cyril E. King Airport on St. Thomas to use jet bridges.
At issue for Sen. Usie R. Richards was the Port Authority’s failure to take most tenants at the agency’s various facilities to court when they didn’t pay their bills. O’Connor said one case went to court.
“What happened was selective,” Richards said.
Richards was the only senator to vote no to O’Connor’s nomination, and it was sent on to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation.
Christie O’Neil’s nomination to the Real Estate Commission didn’t fare as well. No votes by Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen, Sen. Ronald Russell, Sen. Celestino White, and Richards meant her name goes to the full Senate with an unfavorable recommendation. Sen. Carlton Dowe, Sen. Sammuel Sanes, and Sen. Patrick Simeon Sprauve voted yes.
O’Neil brought up several issues during her testimony. O’Neil also said it’s not possible for would-be real estate agents to take the test for a permanent license because it’s not currently being given. She said that this means that people are operating for up to a year on temporary licenses that don’t require meeting any qualifications.
Additionally, she said she would work to insure that people renting their vacation homes through Internet sites like Vacation Rentals by Owner and Homeaway would pay the appropriate taxes to the Virgin Islands government.
She said that in the last two years, more vacation homes are rented through these Internet sites than through vacation villa management companies based on St. John. O’Neil said many off island owners don’t pay taxes required by the local government.
The issue of lack of housing for the territory’s residents came up several times in discussing the nominations of Elissa Rock Runyan, Delrease P. Roberts, Rohit Khiani, and Adonis Morton to the Real Estate Appraisers board. Runyan and Roberts are real estate appraisers and were renominated to the board. Khiani is a banker and Morton is in the mortgage business: both are new appointees. Their nominations were all sent with favorable recommendations to the full Senate.
In response to a question from Hansen, Morton said that the real estate boom peaked in 2006 when people whose companies received Economic Development Commission benefits bought up properties, particularly on St. John: this made property prices skyrocket.
Both Morton and Runyon attended a fair aimed at increasing sales at the Calabash Boom Affordable Housing Community. Morton said twelve of the 24 units remain unsold.
“It’s a personal pet project of mine to insure our St. Johnians have applied for home ownership,” Morton, who hails from St. John, said.
Runyon, who is the current Real Estate Appraisers board chairman, and has served on the board since the early 1990s, said the board needs more legal help to assist with issues. She said the board is one of nine that comes under the Licensing and Consumer Affairs umbrella, and the staff assigned to assist all the boards is stretched thin.
She said that while infractions are few, in one case, a Florida-based appraisal company has worked in the territory without even the temporary license required of off-island appraisers who arrive to work on specific assignments.
“We’ve been trying to discipline it for three years,” Runyon said.
Dowe said he would sponsor a bill requiring off-island appraisers to work with local real estate appraisers.
“It will keep some of the money here,” he said.
In taking up the bills, most of the senators agreed to ignore Sen. Craig Barshinger’s request to hold a bill naming the St. Croix seaplane terminal after St. Croix resident Maureen O’Hara Blair, an actress whose husband, Charles Blair, founded Antilles Airboats. Blair died when his seaplane crashed in 1978.
Instead, an amendment sponsored by Richards, Russell, and Sen. Neville James changed the name to Svend Aage Ovesen. Ovesen was a St. Croix-born pilot who died in 2002 when the charter plane he was piloting crashed in Puerto Rico.
Dowe declined to vote on the bill. Hansen said she thought the senators should address the bill as written with Blair’s name in it, and later voted no on the amendment and on the bill as amended. The rest of the senators voted yes.
The senators also approved a bill to reserve 30 percent of the units to be built by the V.I. Housing Finance Authority in Donoe, St. Thomas, for veterans, and one to tighten up the code that governs plumbers and airconditioning mechanics.
A bill pertaining to retirement of government employees was held until the next Rules Committee meeting. One relating to Magistrates and Superior Court was tabled indefinitely because differences between the two courts had not been worked out.