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GERS Seeks Renewed Legislative Assistance Amid Looming Temporary Insolvency Concerns

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The Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) has reiterated its plea to the legislature for assistance in meeting its operational expenses.

Though it stands as a semi-autonomous body, the GERS does not currently receive any funds from the general budget. The initial request for funding came in 2022 when the then-administrator, Austin Nibbs, implored the Legislature to revoke Act No. 6233. This revocation would entitle GERS to an annual $15 million meant for administrative expenses. Alongside this, Nibbs had also sought a revision in the timeline for boosting employer contributions. While the contributions were previously slated to rise from 23.5% to 26.5% by early 2025, Nibbs, in August 2022, sought an earlier increment. This was to address the anticipated deficit for GERS expected in 2026.

Current Administrator, Angel Dawson, mirrored these sentiments in a recent dialogue with the Senate Committee on Budget, Finance, and Appropriations. He underlined the strides made last year through the historical resecuritization initiative, which shifted the probable insolvency from 2024 to 2052. This was achieved due to the introduction of new funding provisions. Yet, the persistent allocation of rum cover-over funds at a diminished rate of $10.25 creates a predicted four-year insolvency gap for GERS, a fact that came to light in an actuarial report shared with senators earlier this year. Dawson pointed out that this temporary insolvency phase would likely commence in 2038.

The primary objective behind these renewed appeals to the Legislature is to preempt this looming insolvency. By advancing the employer contribution increment, GERS would gain an added $13 million annually, Dawson articulated. Furthermore, reverting to the pre-1998 routine of availing an annual $15 million would give GERS the financial leeway it desperately needs. Dawson elaborated, “The combination of these measures will represent a mere 3% of the GVI’s $850 million general fund budget for 2023.” The fate of the retirement system’s sought-after loan scheme, scheduled for launch in October 2024, might hinge on this crucial legislative endorsement.

Looking beyond this potential insolvency window, Dawson is optimistic about GERS’s fiscal health. He forecasts a robust 100% funding status by 2048. By this, he signifies that the system’s assets would be ample to honor all future retirement benefits. Without the Legislature’s backing, however, reaching this milestone would extend by another 13 years, based on a foundational 6% investment return.

In a candid exchange, committee chair Senator Donna Frett-Gregory voiced apprehensions over a potential $150 million transfer delay from the Virgin Islands Government, attributing the concern to the prevailing rum cover-over rate. Dawson, aiming to quell these uncertainties, remarked, “We’ve yet to receive any intimations of issues regarding the payment of the funding note.” He further shared plans of engaging with top-tier executive financial officials to ensure continued faith in the government’s commitment to its obligations.

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Senate

New Legislative Effort to Address Non-Consensual Sharing of Explicit Images in the Virgin Islands

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The Virgin Islands Senate recently took a significant step toward protecting individuals from the unauthorized dissemination of sexually explicit images, commonly referred to as “revenge porn.” Senator Donna Frett-Gregory spearheaded the initiative, presenting Bill 35-0182 to the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety. This proposed legislation aims to amend Title 14, Chapter 51 of the Virgin Islands Code, introducing stringent measures against the non-consensual sharing of explicit images.

With the advent of digital technology, the phenomenon of revenge porn has emerged as a disturbing trend, victimizing individuals by exposing their privacy to public scrutiny without consent. The bill proposes to tackle this issue head-on by categorizing the first offense as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison, and elevating subsequent offenses to felony status. Victims would have two years to file a criminal complaint from the moment they become aware of the incident.

The Virgin Islands joins a concerted effort across 48 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico, where similar laws have been established to curb this invasive practice. The bill specifically targets the intentional distribution of non-consensual sexually explicit material aimed at harassment, intimidation, or causing harm to the victim, marking it as the territory’s 15th domestic violence crime.

Timothy Perry, representing the Department of Justice for St. Thomas, St. John, and Water Island, acknowledged the bill’s intent but suggested refinements to its language to eliminate potential legal defenses that could hinder prosecution. He highlighted the need for clarity on the intent to harass and knowledge of the necessity for consent.

The Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD), through Assistant Commissioner Mario Brooks, expressed support for the bill, underscoring the traumatic impact of non-consensual pornography on victims. Brooks, however, raised concerns about the bill’s age limitations, pointing out the significant incidence of such crimes among minors, especially within educational settings.

The bill has ignited a broader discussion on the resources required for effective enforcement, with both the VIPD and the Department of Justice emphasizing the need for a comprehensive plan to accompany the new legislation. The Office of the Territorial Public Defender and the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix have also contributed to the dialogue, emphasizing the importance of addressing repeat offenders and the challenges faced by victims in reporting these crimes due to societal stigma.

The legislative committee’s overwhelming support for the bill, coupled with a call for public awareness campaigns by Senator Alma Francis-Heyliger, underscores the community’s commitment to combating this issue. Dr. Clema Lewis of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix voiced her organization’s readiness to lead educational efforts, highlighting the critical role of awareness in prevention.

As the bill moves to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, the Virgin Islands stands on the cusp of significant legal reform aimed at safeguarding personal dignity and privacy in the digital age, reflecting a collective resolve to address and prevent the harm caused by the non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit images.

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Governor Bryan’s Administration Advances School Upgrades Amid Budget Scrutiny

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In a proactive move towards improving educational infrastructure, the administration under Governor Bryan is making significant strides. Amid a focused dialogue with the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, concerns over financial stewardship within school renovation projects were brought to light by Senator Kenneth Gittens. The senator’s inquiry into fiscal responsibility and project efficiency underscored the administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability.

Senator Gittens, expressing his trust in the Department of Education’s leadership, voiced his apprehensions regarding contractor performance, sparked by student advocacy for better school conditions. His concerns led to a deeper examination of the projects managed by Custom Builders VI, particularly focusing on the air conditioning installation at St. Croix Educational Complex High School and the rehabilitation efforts at Gladys A Abraham Elementary School on St. Thomas.

Dionne Wells-Hedrington, the Education Commissioner, alongside Acting Chief Operations Officer Alan Fleming, provided insights into the project statuses. Fleming assured the committee of the near completion of the St. Croix project, highlighting the meticulous approach to ensuring quality and durability in educational facilities.

Addressing the queries raised by Senator Gittens regarding the costs associated with specific repairs, Fleming elaborated on the complexities and standards involved in commercial-grade installations, differentiating them from residential counterparts. This distinction underscores the administration’s focus on investing in lasting infrastructure that meets the specific needs of educational environments.

The Department of Property and Procurement has disclosed that Custom Builders’ contract for the Gladys Abraham Elementary School renovation is valued at approximately $4.87 million, demonstrating a substantial investment in the territory’s educational future. The air conditioning project at the Complex, with its near $825,000 budget, is pivotal for creating a conducive learning environment.

Despite Senator Gittens’ reservations about certain project costs and timelines, the administration’s dialogue with contractors and ongoing assessments ensure that the projects not only meet but exceed expectations. The acknowledgment of vendor responsiveness challenges by Mrs. Wells-Hedrington is a testament to the administration’s proactive stance on improving project delivery and efficiency.

As the St. Croix Educational Complex awaits the final piece for its air conditioning upgrade, the administration’s revised timeline reflects a commitment to thoroughness and quality. Governor Bryan’s focus on enhancing the educational landscape through such projects is a clear indication of his dedication to the well-being and success of the USVI’s students.

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Navigating Development in USVI Historic Districts: A Balanced Approach

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In the heart of discussions aimed at refining regulations for property development within the USVI’s historic downtown areas, a broader understanding emerged concerning the balance between preservation and progress. During a recent Senate Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure, and Planning session, key insights were shared on the nature of renovations in these cherished districts.

Acting Deputy Director Sean Krigger of the USVI State Historic Preservation Office, addressing inquiries from Senator Milton Potter, clarified the misconception around the complexity of undertaking development projects in the historic districts. Krigger emphasized that the regulatory framework for renovations in these areas closely mirrors the standards applied across St. Thomas, St. John, or St. Croix, aiming to dispel concerns over excessive bureaucracy or prohibitive costs.

The conversation, sparked by Senator Potter’s questions on what stifles interest in developing the historic districts, veered into a debate on whether financial burdens or bureaucratic hurdles were the primary deterrents. While Krigger and Jean Pierre Oriol, Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, pointed to escalating construction costs as a significant barrier, Senator Kenneth Gittens suggested that the stringency of Historic Preservation Commission’s (HPC) requirements might be the root cause. Gittens advocated for legislation to moderate certain restrictions, aiming to facilitate easier development processes.

Contrary to the perception of inflexibility, Krigger illustrated the HPC’s adaptability, highlighting innovations in construction that have eased the renovation process. Notably, the commission has approved the use of locally manufactured, cement-based bricks that mimic traditional Danish bricks in appearance but offer practical advantages. This approach exemplifies the HPC’s willingness to embrace modern solutions that respect historical aesthetics without compromising on quality or safety.

Krigger further showcased advancements such as cement boards designed to replicate the look of traditional wood siding, once the preferred material of the HPC. These fireproof boards exemplify the office’s effort to integrate safety with historical fidelity. Additionally, Krigger pointed out that many materials historically used in the districts remain readily accessible, indicating that the HPC’s guidelines are not as prohibitive as commonly believed.

The HPC’s guidelines, covering a spectrum from paint colors to architectural additions, are crafted to offer clarity and flexibility to property owners seeking to navigate the preservation requirements. This was underscored by St. Thomas HPC member Enrique Rodriguez, who noted the commission’s high approval rate for applications, challenging the narrative of an overly rigid HPC.

This discussion reflects a concerted effort to balance historic preservation with the realities of modern development, highlighting the USVI’s commitment to maintaining its cultural heritage while fostering economic growth and innovation in its historic districts.

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