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Budgetary Concerns and Election Integrity Debated at Senate Committee Hearing; ESVI Accuses OMB of Legal Oversight in Funding Proposal



In what was meant to be a standard budgetary discussion, issues of election integrity dominated the conversation when election officials testified before the Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance last week.

Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, Chair of the Finance Committee, frequently noted that some topics broached were more suited for other committee discussions. Yet, these concerns echoed when Board of Elections Chair, Alecia Wells, and Elections Supervisor, Caroline Fawkes, stepped forward to testify.

Highlighting their faith in the recent election procedures, Ms. Wells read a statement from the board, emphasizing the rigorous measures they’ve implemented, namely the “triple redundancy accuracy protocol”. She pointedly described skeptics of the election process as “candidates grappling with loss”. Furthermore, the board’s dismissal of these doubts was anchored in the Superior Court’s precedents concerning Virgin Islands elections.

Drawing attention to local media, Wells highlighted allegations surrounding a senator-at-large’s qualification. However, she countered this by underlining how other island election bodies, like Tortola’s, have sought guidance from the Elections System of the Virgin Islands (ESVI).

A noteworthy mention was the viral video alleging misconduct by a deputy supervisor in the election process. Ms. Wells categorically denied these claims, referencing investigations by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and ESVI which exonerated the accused. She empathetically noted the emotional toll this controversy has taken on the individual.

Shifting to broader concerns, Fawkes raised the alarm on the growing mistrust and, sometimes malicious, scrutiny aimed at election officials. Citing a Brennan Center poll, she informed that a significant portion of surveyed officials expressed concerns about their safety due to the rising tide of unfounded allegations. She asserted that this disturbing trend wasn’t isolated to the mainland but was seeping into the Virgin Islands as well. However, proactive measures are in the pipeline to counter this, she assured.

Delving into the crux of the hearing – the budgets – Fawkes laid out the financial requirements. The Board’s request of nearly $430,000, up more than 100% from last year, caught attention. A substantial portion of this would be earmarked for travel, necessitated by training requirements, explained Wells. Meanwhile, ESVI sought a $3 million allocation, which was $500,000 more than the proposal by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Fawkes stressed the importance of this increased allocation, especially given unforeseen expenses such as approved raises for managerial roles. In her view, the OMB’s proposal did not align with the legal stipulation for biennial salary increments.

Senator Angel Bolques Jr. probed deeper into how underfunding affected ESVI operations. Fawkes painted a picture of the challenges, ranging from ballooning costs to dependency on federal grants. On the topic of acquiring properties to reduce rental overheads, she expressed skepticism given past promises.

Highlighting the urgency with the upcoming 2024 elections, Fawkes stated a separate requirement of $950,000 for smooth conduct. She stressed on timely funding, indicating that delays could hamper the entire election cycle. Another crucial point was the loss of funds, amounting to over $189,000, at the end of the fiscal year, prompting a call for longer-term fund accessibility.

Fawkes shared detailed voter registration statistics, emphasizing the need for increased engagement and interaction with the public. The introduction of a more expansive database was also on the horizon, which would further refine the accuracy of voter lists.

However, as the hearing reached its final phase, a disagreement flared between Senator Alma Francis-Heyliger and Wells over the responsibility for candidate legitimacy checks. With Frett-Gregory’s intervention, clarity was achieved, confirming that the onus lies with the elections supervisor.

Wrapping up, Frett-Gregory expressed her exasperation over the deviations from the primary topic but also voiced appreciation for ESVI’s dedication to upholding democracy in the territory. She concluded, “No system is flawless, but we stand by the work you do.”

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Senator Gittens Challenges HPC Authority: Proposed Bill Seeks Reframing of Historic District Boundaries



The authority of the Historic Preservation Committee (HPC) is being starkly challenged by Senator Kenneth Gittens following controversial decisions impacting iconic local symbols, such as the “I Love St Thomas” sign in Charlotte Amalie’s historic Vendor’s Plaza. Senator Gittens expressed serious concerns over the HPC’s influential reach and is set to propose new legislation intended to reshape the committee’s current jurisdiction.

Senator Gittens, on a recent Friday debate on rezoning applications, pointedly questioned the decisions made by the HPC. “Why does the HPC get to decide whether the ‘I Love St. Thomas’ sign stays?” he asked, highlighting a growing discord on the committee’s role in local governance.

The removal of the sign by HPC was also criticized by Governor Albert Bryan, marking it as a symbol of the committee’s overreach and its role in obstructing revitalizing initiatives within the territory’s towns. Despite past policy disagreements, it seems Governor Bryan and Senator Gittens are united in their stance on HPC’s actions. “While the Historic Preservation Commission has a role to play, their actions can be excessive,” noted Gittens during his address.

Senator Gittens is backing Bill No. 35-0134, focused on reviving the once-thriving Outrigger Hotel and marina on Hospital Road, Christiansted Town. He expressed his discontent over stagnation in development projects in several of St. Croix’s abandoned structures.

Senator Gittens opined that the HPC’s restrictive stance on downtown development is stifling economic growth, emphasizing the need to revisit preservation restrictions in pivotal economic areas like Christiansted and Frederiksted. Contrarily, the HPC rebuffs claims of being a barrier to development, asserting that the majority of proposals receive their approval.

Governor Bryan, who has previously called out Mr. Gittens for not providing solutions, is now likely to witness a proactive step from the Senator. Gittens revealed plans for a forthcoming bill aimed at moderating HPC’s influence. “The new bill will mandate the HPC to pinpoint and preserve structures with historical significance within the historic districts of Christiansted, Frederiksted, Charlotte Amalie, and Cruz Bay, and liberalize the rest,” he proposed.

He advocated for the release of non-significant structures from stringent preservation norms, emphasizing the need for maintenance to preserve the aesthetic appeal of the towns. For Gittens, addressing the obstructions created by the HPC in economic development is a priority and he assures that the matter will be taken up soon.

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Legislative Progress and Rezoning Amidst Power Interruptions: A Glimpse into the Recent Senate Session



In a comprehensive legislative session last Friday, marked by intermittent power outages, senators passed crucial resolutions, confirmed nominees to pivotal boards, and approved several leases and zoning modifications. These decisions are pivotal for the governance and development of the territory, impacting sectors from energy to real estate.

Lionel Selwood, a veteran in the energy sector, received confirmation to join the Water and Power Authority Governing Board. His nomination had previously received commendations from lawmakers, a sentiment that persisted during Friday’s session. Senator Franklin Johnson lauded him as one of the most competent candidates for WAPA’s board, emphasizing the necessity of his expertise to rectify existing issues within the sector.

Angel Dawson, the newly appointed Administrator of the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS), also received a warm welcome and approval from the senators. His commitment to working with present and future legislatures to uphold the trust bestowed upon government employees and retirees was met with appreciation and hope for the stability and growth of GERS.

Post-confirmation, the focus shifted to proposed leases and zoning amendments. The Senate unanimously approved the leases, previously scrutinized and endorsed by the committees on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance, as well as Rules & Judiciary. The rezoning requests, particularly for the island of St. Croix, were presented by Leia LaPlace-Matthew, a territorial planner at the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.

One significant rezoning request involved the former Outrigger Hotel, Restaurant, and Yacht Club, aiming to revitalize the property into a multifunctional facility, including a hotel, restaurant, and marina operation. The approval for rezoning from strictly residential use to a less restrictive classification is seen as a catalyst for redevelopment in Christiansted, aligning with the department’s vision for urban renewal.

Another approved rezoning request pertained to a 12.62-acre parcel in Estate Paradise, currently non-compliant with its zoning category. The rezoning from low-density residential to commercial is expected to rectify this non-conformity and facilitate business expansion, considering its proximity to the airport and the existing industrial character of the surrounding area.

The third variance request was for plots in Frederiksted, with aspirations to transform the property into a building contractor’s office, complete with shops and general contractor services. The enthusiasm surrounding this proposal stems from its potential to enhance the territory’s homebuilding capacity, a crucial need as the Virgin Islands continue to rebuild post the 2017 hurricanes.

Several bills also crossed their final legislative milestone on Friday, including Bill 35-0082, aimed at regulating the suspension and expulsion of young students, and Bill 35-0083, establishing distinct horse racing commissions for each district, along with related anti-doping regulations for racehorses. The budget bills, crucial for funding operations across government branches and agencies, also received approval, along with the continuation of the government’s group insurance policies with leading providers.

Concluding the session, senators passed a resolution honoring the VI National Guard on its 50th anniversary and reallocated $4.9 million from capital projects under the Virgin Islands Public Finance Authority to diverse projects.

This legislative session, despite its interruptions, marked significant advancements in various sectors, reflecting the collective effort to foster development and address the pressing needs of the territory. The approved measures and resolutions are steps towards a resilient and progressive future for the Virgin Islands, ensuring the well-being and prosperity of its residents.

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St. Thomas Anticipates Economic Revival as Lawmakers Approve Key Property Leases



The 35th Legislature of St. Thomas is setting the stage for an economic upswing as it greenlights leases for three significant local businesses. This week, the Committee on Budget, Finance and Appropriation, along with the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, approved property leases for Dave’s Trucking Services, Moe’s Fresh Market, and Petrus Properties LLC.

Vincent Richards, from the Department of Property and Procurement, joined forces with representatives from each of the three businesses to outline the specifics of the leases. Dave Jeffers, owner of Dave’s Trucking Services, revealed plans to construct office spaces for his trucking enterprise at an estimated budget of $80,000. The Legislature had previously approved a different property lease for him in 2019, which was later abandoned due to safety risks. Jeffers expressed concerns about potential ground collapse due to underground tanks, stating, “The safety of my employees and the community is paramount.”

In another significant move, the Legislature approved a lease for over 27,000 square feet of land in Estate Nisky for Moe’s Fresh Market. Wally Hamed, president of Demah Inc., the parent company of Moe’s Fresh Market, pledged an investment of over $7 million in the project. “We aim to create at least 50 jobs during the construction phase and sustain 60 permanent positions once operational,” Hamed said. Vincent Richards added that the property’s strategic location at the entrance of the sub-base area would act as a catalyst for its rehabilitation.

Petrus Properties LLC also secured a lease for waterfront property in St. Thomas. The company plans to construct a two-story commercial building, adding to their existing well-maintained property, which Richards described as the “gold standard.” Kiana Petrus-Abraham, the director of operations at Petrus Properties, emphasized the company’s commitment to local businesses, stating, “Petrus Plaza has consistently retained its tenants since its inception.” The new project is expected to require an investment of approximately $1.5 million.

The legislative members expressed unanimous support for all three leases. Sen. Diane Capehart remarked, “It’s impossible to say no to businesses that have positively impacted our community and are looking to grow.” Sen. Javan James Sr. labeled the proposals as “obvious choices.”

With the initial legislative approvals in place, the leases are set for further consideration in an upcoming full Senate session. Additionally, a fourth lease aimed at establishing a permanent headquarters for St. Thomas Rescue is under review, pending amendments to make it more favorable for the volunteer organization.

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