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Saturday, July 13, 2024
HomeNewsLocal governmentEconomic Development and Agriculture Committee Labors Through Non-Productive Hearings

Economic Development and Agriculture Committee Labors Through Non-Productive Hearings

Sen. Angel Bolques chaired the morning session of the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture Wednesday. (Photo by Alvin Burke, Jr and Barry Leerdam, Legislature of the Virgin Islands)

The Senate Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture began its session Wednesday with testimony for and against changing the composition of the V.I. Division of Festivals.

Bill No. 35-0232, sponsored by Sen. Franklin Johnson, would eliminate the festival assistant directors but increase the number of directors from one to three and require each director to submit a financial report to the Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance.

Johnson said the bill would reduce redundancy, increase local representation, and ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. Each director would reside on the island they represent.

“I say this without fear – we have to spend the taxpayer’s money better,” Johnson said.

Testifiers included booth owner Rena Francis and a reader for Calypsonian Samuel Ferdinand. Francis said she supported the bill but they had problems that could have been preventable. The addition of 15 booths without extra power meant her booth was without power for half of the festival season. She wanted to know why the cost of a booth increased by the number of days decreased. She was also concerned about how funds were allocated for each festival/carnival.

Ferdinand, also known as the Mighty Pat, was concerned that stateside and international musicians were paid much more than locals and received payment before they performed, while locals received much less and usually months after the event.

“St. Croix must have they own people to run festival and St. Thomas must have they own people to run carnival,” his testimony read, adding that payments to musicians since Tourism took over have dropped dramatically.

Asst. Tourism Commissioner Alani Henneman provided information to the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture about the DOT Festival Division on Wednesday. (Photo by Alvin Burke, Jr and Barry Leerdam, Legislature of the Virgin Islands)

Alani Henneman, assistant Tourism commissioner, Ian Turnbull, director of Festivals, and Shamari Haynes, assistant director, explained that the DOT staff of 30 works on the events on three islands. The assistant directors put together outlines of their respective events and the executive and festival teams discuss the outlines and finalize the final schedule, Turnbull said.

“This new bill infringes on the executive branch’s ability to manage its operations, staff and departmental practices,” Henneman said.

The committee asked questions about prospective salaries and was told none had been discussed so far. Sen. Marvin Blyden was told that the executive team decides booth fees.

“This bill is about parity. The change is not working. We feel disenfranchised. This bill brings accountability,” Sen. Diane Capehart said.

In answer to a question, Sen. Novelle Francis was told by Turnbull the budget for the festivals is $1.5 million for St. Thomas and St. Croix and $1 million for St. John.

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said she wants formal committees to plan festivals and Francis agreed.

Senators had questions about village hours and entertainment and debated, sometimes with loud voices, whether the islands were being treated equally.

After a short break, a vote was called for without any public discussion. Capehart presented the bill, but there was no second and the bill died in committee.

Blyden, the bill sponsor said some people didn’t testify because they were fearful for their jobs.

“I hope Tourism gets their act together and treats St. Croix fairly,” Johnson said, adding he didn’t hold it against anyone for not supporting the bill.

Senators in the afternoon session hoped to receive an update on the status of the Office of Cannabis, including regulations and the implementation of licensing procedures.

Although invited, Chairperson Catherine Kean of the Cannabis Advisory Board did not show up for the hearing or send correspondence explaining her absence. No one else from the board attended.

The only people prepared to testify were Horace Graham and Lorraine Fredericks from the
Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs. Assistant Commissioner Graham read a
brief statement.

“Currently, the DLCA business office provides the OCR with administrative support. Specifically, assists with providing office space, fiscal management, human resources supervision and everything in between,” Graham said.

Graham was unable to provide further information, including whether there are currently any employees after the executive director resigned recently. He continued to repeat he had no information and the hearing was canceled.

Next, the committee was prepared to hear from Louis Petersen, commissioner of Agriculture. Unfortunately, Petersen called in, saying he had an emergency. The hearing will be rescheduled.

Senators present at Wednesday’s committee hearing included Javan E. James Sr., Angel L. Bolques Jr., Marvin A. Blyden, Samuel Carrión, Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Novelle E. Francis Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Ray Fonseca, Marise C. James, Kenneth L. Gittens, Franklin D. Johnson, and Milton E. Potter.

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