Tax Assessor Ira Mills told lawmakers on Thursday that Friday, July 27, is the last opportunity for property owners to report hurricane damage to their homes and have property values readjusted for 2018 property tax bills.
Mills was part of the team sent by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, led by Chief of Staff Delbert Hewitt, to defend the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget before the Senate Finance Committee.
According to Mills, the deadline for the submission of hurricane damage reports to the Tax Assessor’s Office was initially set at March 27. However, they recognized that not all property owners may have gotten the chance to submit them.
“We did not want, at any point, to deny someone the ability to get that adjustment,” said Mills. “So for the 2018 bill, we sent out the form again advising that they have a second opportunity to do so.”
After Friday’s deadline, there will be no more extensions for the damage reports. Property owners can still go to their local Tax Assessor’s Office, obtain a request damage form and submit it before close of business on Friday.
Hewitt told lawmakers the hurricanes took their toll on the agency’s total revenues, which dropped by 20 percent in fiscal year 2018. Although the Lieutenant Governor’s Office has several divisions within it — among them the Recorder of Deeds, Corporations and Trademarks, Banking and Insurance — its largest revenue generator is the Division of Real Property Taxes.
As a direct result of the 2017 hurricanes, the $93.4 million in revenues they collected in 2017 dropped to $76 million for fiscal year 2018, with property tax collections reflecting much of the decline. For fiscal year 2018, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office projects a total property tax collection of roughly $42 million. Of that amount, the agency has collected about $13.7 million as of June 30; some $12.3 million of that representing delinquent property taxes.
After the hurricanes, the Division of Real Property Taxes under the Lieutenant Governor’s Office faced the monumental task of inspecting all hurricane damaged properties in the territory. The division resorted to using aerial photography taken via drone in addition to the usual site visits to focus on areas that were hardest hit. The division also urged property taxpayers to report major damage using a request damage form.
In total, some 30,769 parcels turned out to have suffered structural damage across the territory, which significantly affected the numbers reflected on the 2018 tax bills issued in June.
The Lieutenant Governor’s Office’s projections, however, are far more optimistic for fiscal year 2019: some $63 million in estimated revenues from property taxes, with the expectation that damaged properties will have undergone repairs by the 2019 revaluation, and property values will have risen back up. Lawmakers pointed out that damage to many properties may not be remedied in time for the 2019 cycle.
“I’m just making the point out that it’s not everybody who’s able to do that. You have to think about that as the repairs continue,” said Sen. Tregenza Roach (I-STT).
“We understand that,” said Hewitt. “We have to look at the value at the time. If the house isn’t repaired, we have to look at its value at the time.”
This year, the Office of the Lieutenant Governor has a recommended budget of $9.21 million from the General Fund, some $575,000 less than last year’s budget. Of that amount, $5.08 million and $2.1 million are for personnel and fringe respectively, 80 percent of the entire General Fund appropriation. The remaining 20 percent would fund other services and charges.
The Virgin Islands Economic Development Authority also presented its budget on Thursday. According to VIEDA Acting Chief Executive Officer Wayne Biggs, their funding request remains the same as last year: $5.88 million from the General Fund. General operations would eat up roughly $5.48 million of that amount.
This year, the VIEDA is requesting an additional $300,000 to supplement their marketing fund, something lawmakers looked upon favorably after Biggs showed them videos of advertisements the authority is promoting locally and abroad.
Although the agency is asking for the same level of funding as last year, they did get a 12.5 percent reduction in 2018. In spite of the budget cut, Biggs highlighted some of the agency’s accomplishments, including completing an independent financial audit and completing background checks for 12 EDC applicants, all of whom became EDC beneficiaries.
According to Biggs, the Economic Development Bank, a division of the VIEDA, also reduced its loan portfolio delinquency rate from 47 percent to 33 percent.
The Virgin Islands Board of Education also presented its budget on Thursday: $1.74 million from the General Fund for fiscal year 2019, an increase of 12.5 percent compared with last year’s budget. Of that amount, $1.22 million would fund personnel and fringe benefits. The board is requesting another $1.3 million under the Miscellaneous Section of the budget for scholarships and special legislative grants.