Seniors and those with disabilities could be able to pay some of their government bills at other, more convenient government offices, if a bill working through the Legislature becomes law.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Celestino White, would mandate any government agency with a bonded cashier accept payments on any government debt.
The goals are laudable and may be achievable if the bill is changed, but there are some problems with implementing it as written, according to the testimony of Finance Commissioner Angel Dawson, who made suggestions for an alternate approach.
He said what counts as a government office is important, because autonomous and semi-autonomous agencies like the territory’s utilities and hospitals are not interconnected with the V.I. Government Enterprise Resource Planning system.
Also because the government is composed of separate branches, he said, the Judiciary, for example, cannot be compelled to collect executive branch payments.
“There are hurdles in collecting those taxes at other offices because property taxes are catalogued in a separate billing system from the government’s ERP system, mirroring systems across the country, Dawson said. And "as a practical legal matter, tax returns can only be accepted and stamped by the Bureau of Internal Revenue."
A system could be devised where collectors in other offices can accept real property tax payments from taxpayers who qualify under the bill and record the collection in the ERP, Dawson said. But "accepting a payment and recording it in the ERP is a different process from actually updating the taxpayer’s record in the relevant billing system at the Lieutenant Governor’s Office," he said.
Similarly, while any office might collect payments to the V.I. Water and Power Authority, they cannot keep track of what the person actually owes, address any disputes, or ensure that WAPA knows about and processes the payment quickly enough to prevent having the power cut off.
For that reason, the taxpayer paying at an "external collector" should be required to sign a waiver indicating that they are invoking their right to make this convenience payment and that any issues regarding the real property tax bill itself would have to be addressed between the Lieutenant Governor’s Office and the taxpayer, Dawson said.
"Things happen and I would hate for this government to be responsible for someone having their power cut off, especially a disabled senior," Dawson said.
In lieu of having every office take all payments, Dawson suggested identifying several strategic locations on each island with a specially trained "super collector," able to take payments.
The Human Services, Recreation and Sports Committee voted to hold the bill in committee while the bill’s sponsor works on amendments with Dawson.
In other business, the committee sent forward bills to re-instate the volunteer Commission on Aging within the Office of the Governor, and to authorize the government to negotiate for the purchase or exchange of property on St. Thomas for a car racing track.
All votes were unanimous. Present were Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone, Patrick Sprauve, Alvin Williams and Janette Millin-Young. Absent were Sens. Craig Barshinger and Alicia "Chucky" Hansen.