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Bill Aiming to Streamline Clearance of Settled Mortgages Gains Senate Committee’s Approval

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The Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance convened on Monday, green-lighting a bill set to streamline the discharge process of paid mortgages, especially where payment documentation is lacking at the recorder of deeds office. Spearheaded by Senator Marise James, the legislation, identified as Bill 35-0099, seeks to address common hurdles property owners face, especially when there’s no tangible proof of mortgage satisfaction.

Drawing from her real estate legal background, Sen. James elucidated the misconception among property owners that old, settled mortgages or other debt-securing instruments on real property would naturally dissipate over time. Contrarily, she highlighted that a mortgage lien remains intact until officially discharged, and any outstanding mortgages must be settled and recorded as such during property sales. She added that failing to satisfy mortgages at closing could expose the new buyer to foreclosure risks stemming from pre-existing mortgages.

Furthermore, Sen. James pointed out the potential refusal by title insurers to cover properties with outstanding, unrecorded mortgage discharges, adding a layer of complexity to the process.

The proposed legislation introduces a five-year timeframe, post which certain mortgages and other security interests would lapse, liberating otherwise encumbered properties. However, Sen. James was quick to assert that this initiative isn’t synonymous with debt relief, as it doesn’t absolve borrowers from their repayment responsibilities. She rallied her peers to back the bill, projecting smoother property transactions within the Virgin Islands as a result.

Walt Frazer from the V.I. Territorial Association of Realtors endorsed the bill, anticipating it could broaden the property market, particularly benefiting first-time buyers by eliminating at least one mortgage-related hurdle. He, however, proposed a supplementary educational element during mortgage closings, reminding buyers of the importance of retaining payment documentation and the procedure for recording mortgage satisfaction.

C. Portia Pierre, the Recorder of Deeds for St. Croix, suggested some clarifying verbiage in the draft bill, stipulating the requirement for lien holders to file written notices concerning expired security interests with the recorder of deeds office, failing which, the onus would fall on the property owner.

Nadia Harrigan, a legal counsel in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, stressed the importance of an official notice from lien holders to the recorder of deeds office regarding expired security interests. While Sen. James was open to working together on refining the bill’s text concerning this suggestion, she didn’t see it as crucial.

The committee members expressed a positive outlook towards the bill, lauded by Senator Marvin Blyden as “common sense legislation.” Discussions also touched on aligning the security interest expiration period with the national Fair Credit Reporting Act by possibly extending it to 7 years, a notion neither opposed by Ms. Harrigan nor the Lieutenant Governor’s office.

The bill, having secured the committee’s nod, now advances to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further review and potential amendments before it can be enacted into law.

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St. Croix Business & Professional Gala Honors Local Achievers

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The St. Croix Chamber of Commerce held its esteemed 2024 Business & Professional Gala on Saturday evening at the Grapetree Bay Hotel, situated on the picturesque east end of St. Croix. This prominent event in the business community’s calendar drew a diverse group of distinguished attendees, including their families and colleagues.

The evening began with lively live music and networking, enhanced by a cash bar and a specialty drink area sponsored to offer complimentary signature beverages. Guests were treated to a variety of gourmet hors d’oeuvres.

Akeel St. Jean, the chairman of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce board of directors, highlighted the essential role of the private sector in driving the economy and supporting the U.S. Virgin Islands’ low unemployment rate in his address.

The award ceremony proceeded efficiently, honoring excellence in six categories. The honorees included Kisha Christian of Neighborhood Pharmacy as Businesswoman of the Year; Quality Food, represented by Stephanie Karalius, as Business of the Year; Marcy Heistan from Fly the Whale as New Business of the Year; and Mafi Hamed of the Market as Businessman of the Year. The Women’s Coalition of St. Croix was named Nonprofit of the Year, and IB Designs was awarded Small Business of the Year.

The gala concluded with an enthralling performance by Kaiso Caribbean Entertainment, featuring fire dancing and other captivating acts, ensuring a memorable end to the evening. This event not only celebrated the successes of local businesses but also bolstered community spirit and entrepreneurial vigor on St. Croix.

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Financial Shock Hits Republic Bank Customers in BVI and Wider Caribbean Due to Processing Errors

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Recent weeks have seen significant turmoil for customers of Trinidad & Tobago-based Republic Bank’s Eastern Caribbean unit, who have faced unexpected withdrawals from their accounts. These withdrawals, the bank claims, result from unprocessed transactions dating back weeks, months, or even years. This issue has disrupted lives and businesses across multiple territories, including the British Virgin Islands.

At the start of the month, Republic Bank (EC) issued a statement attributing the problem to “technical issues stemming from our conversion exercise.” This conversion followed Republic Bank’s acquisition of Scotiabank operations and affected over 12,000 customers. The bank conducted a “thorough verification exercise” to identify the transactions, and customers received personalized communications detailing the relevant transactions for transparency.

Despite this, many customers remain dissatisfied. A letter signed by 216 customers in Anguilla, addressed to the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) Governor, Anguilla’s Finance Minister, and Republic Bank’s local country manager, reported receiving emails around April 27-28, 2024. These emails notified customers of banking errors dating back to 2021. By April 29, Republic Bank processed debits that caused substantial overdrafts, leading to significant financial hardship for some customers.

Similar complaints emerged from Saint Lucia, Dominica, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, and St. Kitts and Nevis. While some debits were minor, others amounted to thousands of dollars, causing considerable distress. One customer faced a significant financial challenge as his available funds were depleted on the same day his mortgage payment was due.

Customers argue that Republic Bank violated its policies by reclaiming funds after such an extended period. The bank’s Account Services Agreement states that automated transactions should post on the transaction date or the next business day, with longer times for transactions in different jurisdictions. The agreement also limits the bank’s liability for delays or errors resulting from its services, which the affected customers claim the bank has breached.

The ECCB, which regulates banking in the sub-region, stated that while the delay is aggravating, Republic Bank’s actions are not illegal. On May 16, the ECCB announced an independent audit of the situation, which may lead to further actions within its limited powers.

Responses to the ECCB’s intervention have been mixed. Francis Severin, Principal of the UWI Global Campus, praised the audit as a step towards consumer protection but remains skeptical about its effectiveness. Similarly, Dr. Dalano DaSouza, a university economics lecturer, expressed doubt that the audit would yield substantial results and called for an urgent revision of the Banking Act to enhance consumer protection.

Customers face significant challenges in disputing old transactions due to the need for extensive record-keeping. Republic Bank has offered measures such as payment plans, reversing overdraft fees, and waiving fees for bank statements. However, these efforts have not fully reassured customers. Severin criticized the bank’s past failures to uphold promises and questioned the Eastern Caribbean unit’s operational efficiency.

This situation mirrors a similar incident four years ago affecting Republic Bank’s Guyanese customers, though the previous issue involved a shorter delay. As the current debacle unfolds, customers are considering their future with Republic Bank. Severin suggests writing off the oldest transactions as a goodwill gesture, while DaSouza plans to reduce his business with the bank and seek alternatives.

The incident has shaken customer confidence, and Republic Bank’s efforts to address the situation will determine whether customers continue their banking relationships or seek alternatives.

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Historic Preservation Signage Rules Stir Controversy Among St. Croix Business Owners

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Frustration over Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) signage regulations took center stage at a meeting of the St. Croix HPC last Thursday.

Several businesses appeared before the HPC board for signage violations, including those located in the Pan Am complex in Christiansted. Marley Natural was cited for non-compliance due to numerous decals on display windows and front doors. Despite pushback, committee members emphasized the importance of ensuring all businesses in historic districts comply with regulations concerning signage and physical premises.

“There is a level of compliance that needs to be administered throughout the district,” said Kurt Marsh, chair of the VI Historic Preservation Commission.

Mr. Marsh dismissed Marley Natural’s argument that neighboring businesses displayed worse forms of non-compliance. “We can’t function properly if we focus on neighbors rather than the overall regulation of the district,” he said. He urged business owners to comply with regulations to set a good example for others.

Mr. Marsh also sought assistance from St. Croix Administrator Sammuel Sanes, who was present at the meeting. He suggested that collaboration with the Administrator’s Office to encourage landlords to ensure tenant compliance would enhance the efficiency of the compliance process.

Nate’s Boathouse, represented by Chief Operating Officer Chris Mitchell, also faced signage non-compliance issues. Mr. Mitchell challenged the HPC’s authority to regulate signage in his location, citing the three differently-designated districts within Christiansted. Despite State Historic Preservation Officer Sean Krigger explaining the HPC’s legal empowerment, Mr. Mitchell insisted on a legal opinion from the 35th Legislature. He voiced concerns about the fairness of the regulations, highlighting non-compliance by a nearby library and other businesses.

Mr. Marsh remained firm on the HPC’s approach to slowly bring businesses into compliance, reminding Mr. Mitchell of the committee’s limited resources. “We are a volunteer board with no staff to handle discrepancies,” he said, noting the board’s monthly meetings to regulate the Virgin Islands Historic Preservation Commission’s rules.

Mr. Marsh acknowledged that some of the worst violators of historical district regulations are government entities. He stressed the need for a collaborative rather than adversarial approach, recognizing the widespread violations across various districts.

Despite resource challenges, the HPC aims to tailor regulations to current realities. Mr. Marsh cited a recent decision to allow phone numbers on signage as an example of adapting to modern communication needs. He urged business owners to cooperate, emphasizing the importance of preserving the architectural legacy and appeal of historic buildings.

St. Croix Administrator Samuel Sanes supported the HPC’s mission and expressed frustration at the Legislature’s failure to pass legislation that would strengthen the committee’s authority. Mr. Sanes, a former senator, criticized some property owners’ careless treatment of historic buildings but advocated for compassion towards struggling business owners.

Mr. Sanes echoed concerns about the tough conditions for businesses in Christiansted. He supported efforts to review and adjust the fee structure for historic district regulation violations but stressed the need for increased capacity and staff to handle compliance efficiently.

Senate President Novelle Francis, represented by Shawna Richards, shared concerns about removing advertising amid economic challenges. She acknowledged the statutory basis of HPC regulations and expressed willingness to support legislative review to update relevant sections of the VI Code. Ms. Richards emphasized the need for additional funding to increase the HPC’s enforcement capacity.

While rebutting claims that current regulations deter businesses, Mr. Marsh welcomed discussions on amending size regulations to better accommodate business needs. “We can talk about these things and make amendments together to ensure efficiency and satisfaction,” he said.

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