An attentive audience attended the V.I. Senate joint committee hearing in Cruz Bay.
CRUZ BAY — The core of the St. John community packed the St. John Legislature Annex on October 29 at 5:30 p.m. to hear and be heard by seven U.S. Virgin Islands Senators — a quorum of members of two committees of the V.I. Senate and outgoing St. John Senator at Large Craig Barshinger, a member of neither — on the culture-threatening burden of the territory’s property tax structure.
If reelected the senators all vote the way they talked in Cruz Bay on the relatively historic night — and Sen. Barshinger’s replacement defends his home island — the seven could almost immediately find one more senator for a majority in a full-senate vote to ease the property tax burden resulting from the 2014 reassessment which is threatening to drive the native population from the Virgin Island land some families have owned since before the end of slavery.
In a hearing before the Joint Meeting of the legislature’s Committee on Finance and Committee on Culture, Historic Preservation, Youth and Recreation, the senators heard the heart of the matter in testimony from a panel of native St. Johnian elders, culture bearers, historians and political leaders on the threat to the fabric of the fiercely independent smallest U.S. Virgin Island — its native land ownershp — from the newly-implemented V.I. property taxation system.
Stewards of Historic East End Struggle Under Tax Burden
East End native Violet Sewer Mahabir epitomized the plight of generational native landowners striving to retain their heritage land as speculators and the wealthy have capitalized on its pristine splendor and isolation in driving real estate market values to inflated levels.
They are the modern-day caretakers of family estates — many bought by freed slaves or their descendants after Denmark declared an end to slavery and the plantation economy disintegrated. Their stewardship reflecting the ingrained premise that the family land should be protected at all costs for future generations, a stewardship which was being shattered by unbearable property tax burdens.
“Miss Vie” testified she was being taxed for “a small to moderate house made of wood (17 feet x 32 feet), my cistern is plastic drums that cost a couple hundred dollars, and my house is presently (2013) tax valued at almost a half million dollars. ($428,500)”, according to her written testimony.
“Miss Vie” didn’t have to tell the senators the simple house was across the street from the beautiful sands of Round Bay beach on property which has been in her family since the earliest days of one of the islands’ oldest free slave communities renowned for its craftsmen, boat builders, captains and fishermen.
(“Even during slavery a sizeable percentage of the East End residents were free,” Historian Dr. Malik Sekou told the senators in written testimony. See below.)
“When these U.S. Virgin Islands were transferred to the U.S. from Denmark in 1917, it was stipulated in the Transfer that it’s Citizens lives could only improve and not be any less than what they previously enjoyed,” Miss Vie told the senators in her written remarks, echoing what would be the historical mantra of the evening.
Today, citizens and residents alike are being taxed out of our properties,” Miss Vie said in closing. “And apart from being taxed out of our properties, the legal battles continue to cost us the land and our monies.”
“Thanks for permitting me the opportunity to make known at least some of the challenges that I have personally encountered and thanks for listening,” Miss Vie said in civil East End closing.
20th Century Settlers Face Economic Exclusion by Taxation
Retired V.I. Firefighter John Costanza of Coral Bay was the beleaguered standard-bearer of the generational ex-pats who face being taxed out of the community they have helped build by the astronomical government tax assessments of their modest homes and simple vacation rental units they have built as the savings bank and retirement investment of their life’s work.
“I bought both of our house lots for $12,000 in 1980 and built all three of my buildings for less than $150,000 each,” testified Costanza, who also was a licensed contractor. “Now I am taxed on $2,000,000 value and this is not fair to someone who is retired and is on a fixed income.”
“You should adjust or increase (the) tax exemptions for full-time residence and locals which would encourage more development and value,” he urged the senators.
“My heart bleeds as a St. Johnian,” Says Civic Leader Elroy Sprauve
Former Senator and retired educator Elroy Sprauve evinced the heritage of revered St. Johnian civic leader Julius E. Sprauve in his impassioned entreaty to the visiting senators.
“If this present tax structure is allowed to continue it will be the beginning of the end,” Elroy Sprauve testified somberly. “It will be the beginning of the end of a proud history of the people of St. John who have been tied to the land.”
“It is something that is prevalent in St. Johnians,” he testified. “It all comes back to the importance of land, ownership of land.”
“There is no way they can propose this ugly structure for the people on St. John,” the former legislator told the senators, evoking the leadership of the legendary St. Johnian Sen. Theovald E. Moorehead. “The land is the heritage.”
“In the 1940s Miss Nelson sold land to the government very cheaply for homesteads purposes,” Sprauve reminded the audience in a brief history lesson.
Land was sold for $19 per house lot with payments of $5 per month, he recalled. “Five acres of land for $125.”
“This is what government should be doing, helping people,” Sprauve admonished the legislators.
“There was a St. John before there was a national park,” the former Senator reminded the assemblage. “The same people who valued the land and respected the land so it would be beautiful enough that it would be a national park are now being penalized because of the national park.”
“This is not right, this is ugly,” the normally soft-spoken educator said fervently. “My heart bleeds as a St. Johnian. Whatever can be done please do it to rescue St. John from this horrible curse.”
Maternal Lineage on St. John Traced Back to Africa
St. Johnian testifier Janet Burton, a self-described “semi-retired former educator, one of a vanishing breed of St. Johnians whose parents were both native St. Johnians and with a maternal lineage on St. John that can be traced back to Africa,” promulgated a solution for the pronounced inequity between St. John and St. Thomas real estate valuations.
“I grew up in the mid-20th century, seeing land as a place where ancestors lived, a source of survival to be used by the family for housing, agricultural production, at the end of life a place for burial, and home for the ones left behind,” Burton testified. “The property on which I grew up has ben in the family for over 100 years.”
“St. John property owners are members of the St. Thomas — St. John District,” Burton told the senate hearing. “I feel that assessments should be based on comparable properties on both islands, not just on St. John.”
“For government convenience, St. John is a cash cow,” Burton testified bluntly. “A separate and peculiar district when it comes to property values and tax collection, but considered an integral part of a two-island district for all other purposes.”
“We need to stop playing these games,” the educator testified. “People’s lives are being jeopardized.”
“Right now some senior St. Johnians are borrowing money to pay their 2013 taxes… ,” Burton continued. “There are those whose taxes have risen 400 percent or even as much as 1,000 percent.”
“I foresee foreclosures and more auctions in the future,” Burton warned. “In another generation there will be no native land owners in St. John if the high property tax trend continues.”
“Let me put it this way, there will be few black people living on St. John and they will have been driven out by black people who are only interested in their self-preservation, greed and short-sightedness,” the St. Johnian said bluntly.
Island Community Realtor Assesses Assessments
B.J. Harris, a doyenne of the 20th Century St. John real estate industry, represented the modern island real estate market promulgated by the first St. Johnian Realtor, Sen. Theovald E. Moorehead.
“I believe the increased assessments we now see for St. John and the resulting taxes will be a burden on many residents,” said Harris, a 45-year resident of St. John and four-time president of the V.I. Territorial Association of Realtors who has been licensed to practice real estate since 1982.
“I believe we will see people either not paying their property taxes or looking to family to help cover the increased cost; we’ll see retirees trying to go back to work to earn money to make up the difference, or cutting back on important spending, like health, medical or food in order to pay,” Harris said.
“Many will fall behind and run the risk of losing their property,” Harris foretold. “Forced sale is never a good idea, and especially on St. John… We don’t want anyone forced into selling their birthright.”
With an average of 30 homes and 25 pieces of land sold on St. John each year over the past four years there was hardly enough volume to determine the value of the other 3,000 or so homes or all the land on St. John, Harris told the senators as she explained the realities of the island’s real estate market.
“Of the homes which have sold, most were second homes or investment properties because there is minimal turn over of homes belonging to long-term residents of St. John,” Harris continued. “Most of our normal residential properties are handed down from generation to generation or passed around within the family.”
“So it was inappropriate for the value of a second or investment home with multiple amenities to make it viable in the short term rental market to be used as the basis for valuing ALL the homes on St. John,” testified Harris.
“Because our numbers are so small, not balanced out by sales of ‘regular’ homes and land, and not indicative of the whole, it is just impossible to use our sales as generalized comparables to determine value of other properties on St. John,” Harris explained further.
Dr. Malik Sekou, Associate Professor of Political Science/History, UVI, submitted written testimony to the committee meeting which was appropriate for the Love City venue.
“I will give a family example,” Dr. Sekou wrote. “My great grandfather purchased property in Coral Bay during the Danish era. The property consisted of approximately 120 acres. He paid less than a hundred dollars.”
“Today an acre in that same property sells for obscene amounts,” Dr. Sekou continued. “One parcel was assessed for $1.5 million. And it is located on a hill without modern infrastructure.”
“But the problems of excessive property taxes are felt by virtually all St. Johnians, those with deep ancestral roots or those who have arrived with deep love for the island,” Dr. Sekou wrote in closing. The educator encouraged the legislators to look to the intra-island taxation system in the state of Hawaii where “property taxes vary for each island.”
Three Waves of Testifiers
Three waves of testifiers addressed the cultural and governmental issues before the two committees. There were few “carpetbaggers and land speculators“ in the crowded chamber — of any color. There were generations of St. Johnian landed families — native and continental — and those given the opportunity to buy land here generations ago.
And all witnessed an historic moment — a 21st century “night of the silent drums.”
In reasoned argument and defense, native St. Johnians defended their island’s unique culture as they defended their land in the face of a property tax tsunami which threatens to sweep them from their home island.
The doors onto the veranda outside the Senate chamber were opened to accommodate the overflow crowd gathered to hear testimony by community elders and culture bearers — including the pillars of St. John education and political leaders, former V.I. Senators Dr. Gilbert Sprauve and Elroy Sprauve.
Other testifiers included Frank Powell Jr.; Lorne Battiste; Delia Thomas; Roger Harland, Sharon Coldren, and Pam Gaffin.
Tax Assessor Defends Department’s Efforts
In the face of impassioned testifiers and questioning senators, V.I. Tax Assessor Ira Mills stoically defended his department’s efforts to create a fair and equitable V.I. property tax system in the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.
Earlier in the month Mills personally conducted a Saturday morning open meeting about the 2013 tax bills with interested St. John property owners at the Julius E. Sprauve School — on his own volition and unaccompanied by staff.