Lt. Governor Vargrave Richards–One of Busiest Men in Government

Lt. Governor Vargrave Richards, appearing in a hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in October, testifies to the harmful effects of the “1936 Statute,” an archaic federal law enacted in 1936 that limits the Virgin Islands Government from setting its own property tax policies.

Although his face may be familiar, not many people know that Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards is one of the busiest men in government, overseeing a long list of offices and services.

Richards definitely keeps busy by overseeing the banking and insurance industries, corporations and trademarks, medicare, the tax assessor’s office, passports and the recorder of deeds territory wide.

“Unlike lt. governors anywhere else in the nation, the lieutenant governor here has specific statutory responsibilities,” said Lt. Gov. Richards. “As you can see, it requires quite a level of thinking and understanding of diverse types of responsibilities. The level of responsibility is far more here in the territory than in any other state.”

Union Representative
Richards, a St. Croix native, attended the University of the Virgin Islands and taught science at the Elena Christian Junior High School for about 12 years, where he became a representative for the American Federation of Teachers. He eventually became the union’s vice president, a position he held for 14 years.

“There are always issues that we as teachers face,” Richards said. “Whether it be labor or school or academic issues, teachers need to have their voices heard. We served as their voices.”

Richards enjoyed his years as a union leader, but eventually started looking for a different position.

“After working with the union for a few years, I was getting a bit frustrated,” he said. “I was what we call in teaching getting ‘burnt-out.’ I was actually looking for something else to do.”

It was the encouragement of Richard’s friends and community members which drove him into U.S.V.I. politics.

Deciding To Stay in USVI
“I was thinking about moving to the mainland,” he said. “But some older friends and role models of mine suggested that I stay around. They thought that I could make a difference locally.”

Following his friends’ advice, Richards ran for office in 1994 and was elected to the V.I. Senate—the first of four terms that he would serve. Richards, a life-long democrat, was elected the senate’s vice president in his third term, and served as the senate president in his fourth, and final, term. In this capacity, he oversaw the 23rd Legislature of the V.I.

“There was a lot of legislation that came about during that year,” he said. “But what stands out to me personally was the legislation about the study of the entire educational system. It called on the education commissioner to access and evaluate the education system in the territory.”

“I think that we brought some dignity and style to the legislature,” he added.

Improving St. Croix
After his fourth term, Richards was encouraged by the V.I. Democratic Party to run for the lt. governor position, and was elected in 2002. In addition to all of the various agencies that he oversees, Richards has also been assigned to improve the economic livelihood of St. Croix.

“The governor assigned this responsibility to me,” he said. “We have had our accomplishments, and we are proud of them. I am pleased that we have been able to move along a host of projects that had languished for more than 30 years.”

Among his numerous initiatives on St. Croix, Richards cited the continuation of the Christiansted boardwalk and the completion of the Mon Bijou flood project as two highlights. Completing lagging tasks is one of the reasons that Richards enjoys his position.

Public Service
“I always say that my job is a service,” he said. “And I derive a whole lot of gratification from that. When I lift a phone and address a constituent’s problem and grievance, that makes me feel good.”

The most difficult part of his job is being away from his family and friends on St. Croix, Richards added.

“My responsibility is on all three islands,” he said, “which demands a lot of traveling back and forth. I am on St. Thomas and St. John every week, which is quite demanding.”

As part of his responsibilities, Richards oversees the V.I. Tax Assessor, who will probably not be the most popular person in Love City when the property revaluations are complete.

Tax Revaluation
In 1999, several hotels sued the V.I. Government, citing unfair property tax procedures. Citing a 1936 tax law, the federal court decided that the system was illegal and ruled that the V.I. Government must implement a new appraisal system.

The tax assessor’s office has already inspected commercial properties, and is currently conducting on-site inspections of all residential properties throughout the territory. The new appraisals could translate into huge property tax bills for St. John residents. And those affected the most might simply have the misfortune of living next door to someone who built a million dollar home—even though their home may be modest.

Taxes Shouldn’t Displace Residents
“I share St. John residents’ concern,” said Richards. “I believe that in particular, St. John—given the level of million-dollar properties—could be affected the greatest. I believe that the people who have lived there for hundreds of years should not have to undergo this type of tax increase.”

“The new tax system could lend itself to displacing the local people who have been there for their entire lifetimes, and that is not right,” he continued.

The tax revaluation program was not devised by the local government, Richards pointed out.

“When I took office in 2003, the court ordered that properties must be taxed at actual value,” he said. “We are under a federal court order—this is not an initiative of the V.I. government.”

The federal court’s ruling didn’t stop at altering the tax system—it also eliminated tax exemptions.

“There was a 10 percent increase cap on residential property taxes which was in place since the existence of the V.I. government,” Richards said. “The elimination of the 10 percent cap was critical because it doesn’t allow for the government to control the rise in property taxes. That created a whole problem in itself.”

Taxes Controlled by Feds
Richards has been working in conjunction with Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen to push for a repeal of the 1936 tax law.

“I have testified in Washington before the U.S. Senate Committee,” he said. “I believe strongly that the law should be repealed. We are the only U.S. jurisdiction where the local property taxes would be controlled from a federal, rather than a territorial level.”

If the 1936 law is repealed, it would give the local government the ability to develop its own tax policy, and control skyrocketing tax increases.

“If the delegate and I are successful, it would give the power back to the local leaders,” Richards said.

Planned Development Needed
As the rampant pace of development on St. John continues, Richards is calling for more planning and foresight.

“There is a feeling from the people who have lived on St. John all their lives that somehow the outside element is impacting their day to day life,” he said. “While there is always need for growth and development, it should always be in concert with the people who make up the community. Development should be in their best interest.”

“The people of St. John must set the tone and directive that the community should go in,” Richards continued. “The livelihood of the people who live there should always be considered first. Development is good, but it should be tempered and structured in a way that the people who live there benefit from it.”

The Future is a “Green Light”
As Richards’ four-year term is due to expire in November, his political future is full of possibilities. Although he wouldn’t confirm or deny that he would run for lt. governor again, or possibly even governor—saying only that the near future is a “green light”—Richards’ dedication to public service will ensure that he remains a fixture of the V.I. government landscape.

“I’ve always believed that what I do is service,” he said. “Every member of the community should be aware that politics is nothing else but service. Service—along with teaching—is the most noble thing that one can do.”

“The young should always understand that service is what builds character and builds one’s community,” Richards continued. “It’s sort of dedicating one’s self to making the community a better place. Service is always laudable and respectful.”