Sunday night television in the Virgin Islands was a sobering event this past weekened. That is, it was a sobering event for those who watched the special program shown on WTJX that was hosted by our delegate to congress, Donna M Christensen. The focus of the program was to discuss the experiences that Washington, D.C., went through under the control of a board appointed by Congress.
Joining the delegate were Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Washington D.C., representative to Congress, and Larry Wilson, a partner in the firm of Thompson, Cobb, Brazilio and Associates, who served as an adviser to the D.C. government during its climb back up from the bottom.
It is no secret that the Virgin Islands government has created a financial mess. To Delegate Christensen's credit, she did not spend 30 minutes trying to sugar coat the territory's problems. And to the guests' credit, they were as blunt as any true reformer could hope for. Asked about how the control board dealt with D.C.'s problems, Norton responded: "It was Draconian."
Wilson, noticeably pragmatic in his approach to solving fiscal problems, summarized his philosophy with the pithy statement: "My watchword is reform." His pointed question about whether or not there was competitive procurement in the Virgin Islands was met with a response from Christensen that she knew that the government is required by law to seek competitive bids.
However, like a cagey prize fighter, Wilson pursued a more pointed answer by asking: "Is it competitive to the extent that you are getting the best value for your dollar?"
"I think that may be an area that we need to look at," was Christensen's response.
It was obvious very shortly into the program that D.C. had been through this wringer before. However, it was interesting to note that Norton seemed to be surprised by the percentage of the population on the government payroll. And then she said she did not believe it would be possible to find a politician anywhere in the country who would make cuts when one-third of the population is on the government payroll.
Norton's eyes grew wide when Christensen mentioned that the Virgin Islands has a total deficit of nearly $1 billion. Particularly interesting was that Christensen rightly classified the massive territorial debt as a deficit, since the borrowings essentially covered operating expenses. Norton replied, "It sounds to me as though you are heading toward structural problems."
Wilson noted that there is a five-year economic recovery plan posted on the local government's Web site. He also noted that it has been in a "study" for the last three years.
Wilson expressed a clear need for action in saying: "The time for study has long since passed … If you have to make a hard decision today, its not [going to] get any easier tomorrow." He also suggested some not-so-novel ideas such as only paying people when they actually show up for work.
The program was a refreshing dose of blunt honesty to a territory that has become mired in the inertia of a government that seems to be incapable of accepting certain irrefutable tenets. One such tenet is that it is impossible to borrow one's way to prosperity. Another is that the government cannot sustain a good economy by being the largest employer. Will the government of the Virgin Islands enact reform?
The advice of Eleanor Holmes Norton is clear: "Do it now, before Congress has to do it for you."
WTJX is scheduled to rebroadcast the program at 6:30 p.m. Thursday
Editor's note: Bill Turner is a writer, a former history teacher and the executive director of the St. Croix Environmental Association. He writes a daily commentary on events in the Virgin Islands that can be accessed at V.I. Buzz.
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