CRUZ BAY — The Committees on Finance and Culture, Historic Preservation, Youth and Recreation, chaired by Senators Clifford F. Graham and Myron D. Jackson respectively, held a combined meeting at the Legislative Conference Room in St. John Tuesday evening to discuss solutions for the exorbitant tax increases plaguing property owners on St. John.
“The hearing will discuss the findings and proposed solutions to the 1998 and the 2014 tax increases to property owners on St. John and examine ways to preserve the community’s land heritage ownership within the 1917 Treaty and tax structure of the Virgin Islands,” explained Sen. Jackson.
Community members participated in the discussion by sharing their own histories of how they came to possess land on the island. Stories ranged from visitors who “forgot to go home” after more than a decade, to third and fourth generation St. Johnians occupying land owned by their ancestors. But the struggle of holding on to that lineage for future generations was one felt by all present.
Delia Thomas, a St. Johnian who owns part of an undeveloped parcel of land in Cruz Bay, spoke about the rise in taxes for a piece property that has been in her family since May of 1925. “Although I anticipated the tax to increase about eight times the previous bill, the actual increase was twelve times—1,237 percent,” she said.
Senators questioned Ira Mills, Tax Assessor at the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, who explained that the spike in property taxes occurred because rates were being given based on dated assessments. Tax bills from 2012 were based on assessments from 1998, while 2013 bills were based on assessments done in 2013.
Sen. Nereida Rivera O’Reilly referenced a testimony from Malik Sekou, the Associate Professor of Political Science and History at the University of the Virgin Islands, though he was not present. Sekou shared an idea gathered from research and suggested that lawmakers consider following the model of Hawaii where real property tax rates differ by island.Senators agreed with Sekou and said that it was something they would consider.
Sen. Tregenza A. Roach, a member of the Committee on Culture, suggested that undeveloped property be taxed at lower rate. “I think if we look to the neighboring BVI, you have approaches that I think are really geared at helping local people retain their property. And I have long advocated for a system of looking at exemptions that treat undeveloped property and residential property different from property used for commercial purposes,” he said.
Sen. Roach also spoke about exploring other revenue generating areas that would help alleviate some of the cost for property owners.
Later, Sen. Craig W. Barshinger asked officials and community members if they sought an end of monetary gain or the preservation of their cultural heritage relative to the discussion on property tax. Ultimately, most said that the solution would be found within a balance. Sen. Graham agreed.
“We have to do what we have to to protect our residents from getting rid of land that has been in [their] possession for many many years,” he said.
Committee members present included Senators Donald G. Cole, Clifford F. Graham, Kenneth L. Gittens, Myron D. Jackson, Nereida Rivera O’Reilly, and Tregenza A. Roach were present. Non-committee member, Sen. Craig W. Barshinger, was also present.