Senate President Neville James addresses St. John property owners at a public meeting on Sept. 9, flanked by six members of the 31st Legislature. Sen. James and his fellow lawmakers said they understood residents’ concerns about the island’s burdensome property tax bills.
CRUZ BAY — Seven members of the 31st Legislature told a group of St. John property owners they were ready to reform local property tax laws, but Senate President Neville James said he had not yet formed a task force to address the different issues raised at recent public meetings.
About 25 residents attended the Sept. 9 meeting in Cruz Bay. The meeting was presented by the St. John Unity Day Group, which has been organizing around the issue of high property taxes on the island. Unity Day president Lorelei Monsanto told lawmakers that after speaking up at meeting after meeting and frustration was setting in.
Prior to the public gathering, Monsanto and other Unity group members met privately with lawmakers, ostensibly to update them on a federal lawsuit they brought over tax assessments. They met with Senate President Neville James, Senator-At-Large Almando “Rocky” Liburd and Senators Kenneth Gittens, Justin Harrigan, Myron Jackson, Tregenza Roach and Marvin Blyden, excluding the press.
A hearing on that complaint is expected to be heard before District Court Judge Curtis Gomez in December.
James told the gathering he and his colleagues were ready to act on their behalf.
“We heard what is before Judge Gomez is to be considered to be heard in December but December is too long, in my opinion, with respect to the relief needed for the people of St. John,” he said. “The seven of us, and I bet the Senate at large is sensitive to the realities of property tax, in particular ownership of property on St. John. We are ready to do what we intend to do from a legislative standpoint to address the matter.”
Since the start of the administration of Gov. Kenneth Mapp in 2015 there have been three occasions where property tax issues have surfaced at public forums on St. John. Senators Myron Jackson and Tregenza Roach said they would encourage their colleagues to address the concerns expressed during other town meetings.
Roach shared a set of proposals he developed since attending a St. John town meeting earlier this year, including a reviews of legal requirements for adverse possession claims. He also promoted stronger equity of redemption rules that would allow delinquent taxpayers whose property is sold in a government or bank auction a period of time to pay back taxes and recover the property.
The St. Thomas-St. John district lawmaker also suggested a modification of the St. John tax rate, based on the presence of the national park over three-eighths of the island’s land mass.
Sen. Liburd, a native St. Johnian, has been advocating for property tax reform throughout his legislative career.
“We have to do our job,” he said. “One of the things we talked about was repealing act 6991. (Sixty-nine, ninety-one is the measure passed by the Legislature, created the territory’s first local property tax system.)”
It’s the job of the Legislature to make and amend laws, the senate president said. But before any changes are made an analysis has to take place to make sure the intended changes don’t cause problems in other ways.
“The Legislature at large is sensitive to the realities of dealing with property tax, in particular, ownership of property on St. John. We intend to do what we have to do from a Legislative standpoint to address the matter,” Sen. James said.
Gittens issued a statement after the meeting. He said he has drafted legislation to hold the St. John residential property tax bills at the 2012 Real Property rate until a proper assessment is completed and reviewed by the Legislature and is hoping for support from his colleagues and those with oversite of the property tax issues to bring some resolution soon.
“We have residents who are being forced to give up their property that has been in their families for years, for far below what it is worth, just because they can’t pay these taxes, we have got to do something and do it sooner, rather than later,” Gittens said.