GERS Bill and Nominations Head to Full Senate

Wynnie Testamark’s nomination as director for the Bureau of Corrections moved forward.

Wynnie Testamark’s nomination as director of the Bureau of Corrections and Joss Springette’s nomination as chief negotiator for the Office of Collective Bargaining were forwarded Thursday to the full Senate.

The Committee on Rules and Judiciary Thursday also approved and forwarded to the full Senate an act increasing the annual appropriation from the Internal Revenue matching fund to the Government Employees Retirement System from $7 million to $10 million.

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, a co-sponsor of the act, cautioned it was far from addressing “the 500-pound gorilla in the room” – the unfunded liability of the retirement system. She later called the gorilla “a billion dollar nightmare.” Some financial experts would call it a $2 billion nightmare.

The act allocates 60 percent of the appropriation to pay outstanding employer contributions and 40 percent as a direct contribution. The direct contribution makes those funds available for GERS to invest; the other 60 percent is set aside to pay any back payment the government owes to any retiree’s account. GERS will not send checks to retirees until the government has made all the payments due to the retirees’ accounts. This has at times delayed retirees from receiving their annuity checks for more than a year.

The bill like the two nominations received little opposition.

Testamark said the Corrections Bureau has its share of challenges. As Frett-Gregory testified about GERS’s problems, Testamark said the problems will not go away on their own if we simply ignore them. She said, “For far too long, the Bureau’s challenges have not been given the priority they deserve. These challenges have been years in the making. Rather than address them head on, what has been done, unfortunately, is to ignore them or push them to the side – so that another administration or legislature can deal with them.”

One of those challenges she referred to was the “aging and deteriorating facilities” at the Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix and at the Alexander A. Farrelly Criminal Justice Complex on St. Thomas. She said the facilities present a danger to staff and inmates and are increasingly costly to maintain.

She testified, “The bottom line is that the Virgin Islands needs to build new, direct supervision facilities on St. Thomas and St. Croix. This will save money in the long term. Modern facilities will require far fewer correctional officers to operate, thus reducing overtime.”

“These new facilities also will be able to accommodate some of the 194 prisoners that the Bureau now pays to house off island – to the tune of $12 to $15 million per year, which represents almost half of the Bureau’s budget,” she added.

Another 10 percent of the budget, according to Testamark, goes to paying corrections officers overtime.

Sen. Alicia Barnes, chair of the committee, asked whether the idea of new facilities was just part of Testamark’s wish list or something that could happen. Testamark said she was talking to stakeholders and community members to try and make it happen.

Joss Springette’s nomination as chief negotiator for the Office of Collective Bargaining moved forward.

Springette said one of the challenges at the Office of Collective Bargaining is a shortage of staff to handle almost 200 pending cases. However, she said she had already put in motion the process of hiring two legal secretaries.

Springette has already worked five years at the Office of Collective Bargaining, first as an assistant attorney general and then as acting chief negotiator. For the last two years, she has worked as general counsel at the V.I. Public Services Commission.

Currently, Collective Bargaining has one employee in the St. Thomas-St. John District and five employees in the St. Croix District. Two assistant attorneys generals are assigned to the Office by the V.I. Department of Justice.

One of her top goals Springette said is to increase the number of assistant attorney generals from two to four. Her long-term goals, she told senators, is to improve relations between the unions and government. Government workers are represented by 13 different unions