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Urgent Hearing Requested by Gittens on St. Croix’s Water Contamination Concerns

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Senator Kenneth Gittens voiced urgent concerns on Thursday, seeking a prompt assembly of the Senate Committee of the Whole to delve into the ongoing water issues on St. Croix. He has forwarded a request to Senate President Novelle Francis for an emergency hearing, ideally slated for early next week, to ensure that lawmakers are thoroughly informed about the prevailing crisis.

“The insufficiency of our understanding regarding this water crisis necessitates immediate inquiries on record,” expressed Mr. Gittens.

He further noted, “While there have been remedial suggestions from my colleagues, the absence of crucial information hinders our ability to devise a comprehensive resolution for this predicament.” Senator Gittens highlighted the ambiguity surrounding the extent to which Virgin Islanders are affected by the contaminated water.

In a recent disclosure, officials from the Water and Power Authority (WAPA) revealed alarming levels of lead and copper contamination in multiple water samples collected from different locations within the St. Croix water distribution network. The contamination, as reported by WAPA, is confined to four communities: Diamond, Colquhoun, Castle Burke, and Mon Bijou. In light of these findings, a re-evaluation through retesting is underway to confirm the initial results’ accuracy.

As the administration anticipates the second round of testing results, Senator Gittens is pressing for insights from all parties involved in managing the crisis. This includes WAPA, the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the Department of Health, the Governor’s financial advisory team, and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Central to Senator Gittens’ inquiries is the identification of the exact number of WAPA customers affected by this contamination and the method used to derive this figure. He is also seeking clarity on potential safe or approved applications for the contaminated water, alongside an estimated timeframe for upgrading the St. Croix water distribution infrastructure, among other concerns.

Underscoring the gravity of the situation, Mr. Gittens contemplates the deployment of portable desalination units as a provisional measure to supply clean water to schools and residences lacking cisterns. “The matter at hand warrants an extensive discussion,” Mr. Gittens emphasized, advocating for a robust response to address St. Croix’s water contamination challenges.

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Government

New Legislation Proposes Electing Attorney General in US Virgin Islands

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Following the departure of Ariel Smith from the office of attorney general, a renewed focus has been placed on the high turnover rate among appointees to this position. This situation has spurred legislative action aimed at allowing the residents of the Virgin Islands to elect their attorney general, a proposal brought forth by Senator Alma Francis Heyliger. During a legislative session on March 25, Heyliger introduced Bill 35-0248, emphasizing the necessity to diminish the political influences on the attorney general’s office.

The forthcoming committee discussions will determine the feasibility of requesting Congress’s permission for the USVI to hold elections for the attorney general’s position, a timetable for which remains to be established. Heyliger highlighted the urgency and the widespread desire for this change, noting the successful implementation of elected attorneys general in over 40 states across the nation. She also referenced a past referendum where a significant majority of Virgin Islands residents—76 percent—voted in favor of electing their attorney general, indicating a strong local push for this amendment.

Currently, Ian Clement serves as the acting attorney general, succeeding Ariel Smith, who held the position for less than a year. Smith had been appointed by Governor Albert Bryan Jr. in March 2023, following Denise George’s dismissal, who had served for four years. This legislative proposal marks a pivotal step towards aligning the Virgin Islands with the broader trend of electing attorneys general, aiming to enhance the office’s independence and accountability to the public.

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Revitalized Loan Program Set for Launch, GERS Showcases Financial Strength and Announces Enhancements to Havensight Mall

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Retirees of the Government Employees Retirement System (GERS) are on the cusp of receiving comprehensive details next month regarding the eagerly awaited revival of a loan program. At a recent assembly, GERS Board of Trustees heard from Administrator Angel Dawson Jr., who announced that specifics of the loan initiative will be disclosed in a press release scheduled for April 8. This program, resuming after a significant hiatus, already showcases a portfolio of loans exceeding $6.4 million across St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. Plans are in place to extend this figure to a maximum of $10 million per district, starting with an interest rate of 8 percent.

In addition to financial solutions, Dawson shed light on the advancements in the Havensight Mall renovation effort. Recent discussions have revolved around the creative process of reimagining the mall’s identity, with a focus on naming and design concepts set to resonate within the community.

The financial health of GERS remains robust, despite challenges such as notable arrears in rental and electricity payments, with the Department of Justice highlighted for its outstanding dues. Dawson emphasized the organization’s commitment to rigorous collections, maintaining that GERS operates with financial prudence, not as a credit facility for tenants. “We exert consistent pressure on all tenants, underscoring that financial arrangements should be sought through banks,” Dawson stated, reflecting GERS’s stance on managing receivables.

Amidst these operational challenges, Dawson proudly noted the pension system’s financial status, highlighted by a cash surplus exceeding $63 million. This fiscal accomplishment is attributed to the system’s disciplined approach to managing expenditures, currently reported at only 26 percent of the yearly budget, significantly below the anticipated 42 percent.

The dedication to fiscal responsibility also extends to the management of the Havensight Mall project. Despite a minor cash shortfall due to ongoing capital investments and a temporary decrease in rental income owing to Covid-related concessions, Dawson assured stakeholders of the project’s solid financial grounding, with expectations of rental abatement expiration next year bolstering future revenues.

The board also approved an additional allocation for a new vehicle in St. Thomas, which will be partly funded through the sale of four older vehicles from the agency’s fleet, showcasing GERS’s commitment to optimizing assets for operational efficiency and sustainability.

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Virgin Islands Legislation Proposes Employment Opportunities for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

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In a significant step towards rehabilitating formerly incarcerated individuals in the Virgin Islands, Senator Angel Bolques Jr. has hailed new legislation as “the epitome of a second chance.” The initiative, spearheaded by Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, introduces “The Fair Chance for Employment Act” (Bill 35-0115), aiming to dismantle employment barriers for ex-offenders. This legislative effort mandates the Division of Personnel to craft policies promoting fair chance hiring practices.

Senator Frett-Gregory, addressing the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety, emphasized the need to dispel the longstanding stigma against former inmates in the Virgin Islands. She argued that the bill is crucial for reducing recidivism rates and fostering economic stability by ensuring access to gainful employment for rehabilitated individuals. “The Virgin Islands must move beyond mere talk of rehabilitation and reentry to actual policies that open doors for our community members,” Frett-Gregory argued.

The proposed Fair Chance For Employment Act would not eliminate the possibility for employers to conduct background checks but would shift this step to occur after the extension of a conditional job offer. This approach aims to balance the integrity of the hiring process with the rights of individuals seeking a fresh start.

The bill received a warm reception from both lawmakers and advocacy groups. Dr. Kendra Roach, representing the Society of Human Resource Management’s local chapter, praised the bill for its potential to provide equitable employment opportunities, including for those with criminal records, stating that it embodies the principles of equity.

Echoing the support were Senators Bolques Franklin Johnson, Ray Fonseca, and Alma Francis-Heyliger. Francis-Heyliger highlighted the commonality of human error and the bill’s pragmatic approach to considering the nature of the applicant’s past offenses when determining employment eligibility.

Winnie Testamark, Bureau of Corrections Director, underscored the bill’s alignment with the Bureau’s reentry strategies, including educational and vocational training programs designed to ease the integration of former inmates back into society.

The Department of Labor acknowledged the bill’s potential to boost employment, but suggested amendments for clarity and safety, notably around the conditions for withdrawing job offers based on past convictions. Senator Frett-Gregory agreed to revise the contentious provision.

However, the Division of Personnel expressed reservations, particularly about the bill’s requirement for the Division to enact fair chance hiring policies, fearing an undue burden on HR practices. Assistant Director Florine Audain-Hassell argued for maintaining these policies within the Department of Labor and raised concerns about potential discrimination.

Senator Frett-Gregory and Committee Chair Senator Kenneth Gittens addressed these concerns, emphasizing the government’s existing commitment to nondiscriminatory hiring practices and the bill’s focus on enhancing these through explicit policies.

The unanimous backing by the Committee members propels Bill 35-0115 to the next stage of legislative review by the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, marking a hopeful advancement towards integrating formerly incarcerated individuals into the workforce and society.

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