Nov. 25, 2003 – Delegate Donna M. Christensen said on Tuesday that legislation she has introduced in Congress to create a new position of chief financial officer and set up an integrated financial management system in the territory could be taken up by a congressional committee by late January.
Speaking at a press conference in her Sunny Isles offices, Christensen said she knew introducing the measure last Friday that the bill was going to create a furor.
"I know I put myself out on a limb," the four-term delegate said. "But this is not the first time the Virgin Islands government has been in financial crisis. This is the third time since I have been in office that we have found ourselves in this position."
The bill now before the U.S. House of Representatives directs the governor of the Virgin Islands to appoint a chief financial officer who would serve for five years not concurrent with the term of the governor. The CFO would assume the functions of the Office of Management and Budget director, and the current OMB director would function as deputy chief financial officer.
The individual would not serve at the pleasure of the governor and could only be removed "for cause," Christensen said. The Department of Interior would fund the position, with the local government continuing to pay the salary of the OMB director in the new position of deputy CFO.
Christensen said she felt it necessary to introduce the bill because "I have not seen the kind of response I should be seeing from the government" to its continuing fiscal problems. "The 2004 budget does not show fiscal restraint of government spending," she added.
The 25th Legislature shortly after midnight Monday night adopted an FY 2004 budget of about $626 million, with the majority projecting $70 million in questionable new revenues to balance it — $40 million from a tax anticipatory note tied to plans to collect two years' worth of property taxes within FY 2004 and $30 million from a letter of credit backed by the Insurance Guaranty Fund.
On the Senate floor Monday, Sens. Lorraine Berry and Almando "Rocky" Liburd were sharply critical of Christensen's plan for a CFO — but both also warned their colleagues that, as Liburd put it, "Congress is looking at what we are doing." Gov. Charles W. Turnbull expressed his opposition to having a CFO earlier this year and, according to published reports, still is against the idea. The majority, the governor and the delegate all are members of the Democratic Party.
According to Christensen, however, "the governor has agreed in principle that a financial management system that incorporates all aspects of government must be created."
She had said in August that she had Turnbull's support for putting an integrated financial management system into place. She also said then that she was taking action to get legislation in place to create the CFO position. (See "Federal OK sought for CFO, financial system".)
Berry, meanwhile, had her own idea for dealing with the territory's chronic financial crises. She had legislation drafted to create a local financial control board modeled on the one that took over the purse strings of the Washington, D.C., city government in 1995. She said recently that she had not gotten any support from her majority colleagues for the measure.
Christensen said on Tuesday that there has been an attempt by the governor and the Legislature to address the current fiscal crisis, but "local elected officials have a tough time making the decisions, because the election process constrains them."
In short, she said, "It is going to take a person who is not elected to make the tough choices."
The chief financial officer would have access to all information required to carry out the functions of the office and would oversee and have to approve all government spending in keeping with a fiscal austerity and accountability plan.
"Not being indebted to the electorate will clear the way for the CFO to curtail spending that may be outside the fiscal plan," Christensen said.
Her bill requires that the CFO be a certified public accountant and have experience as "a certified government finance officer."
The individual "could very well come from the Virgin Islands," she said. "There are many qualified candidates here, and there are many Virgin Islanders on the mainland who qualify."
About a quarter of Christensen's bill is devoted to describing the makeup and functions of the Chief Financial Officer Search Commission that would recommend three candidates for the position to the governor. The body would come into existence for just 60 days, strictly for the purpose of deciding on three candidates qualified to serve at the CFO.
It would consist of eight members, the chair being the Secretary of Interior or a designee. The other seven would comprise:
– An appointee of the governor.
– An appointee of the president of the Legislature.
– An appointee of the presiding judge of Territorial Court.
– An appointee of the Central Labor Council.
– An appointee jointly of the territory's two Chambers of Commerce.
– An appointee of the president of the University of the Virgin Islands.
– An appointee residing on St. John of the at-large member of the Legislature.
The candidate chosen by the governor would require confirmation by the Legislature.
As for the proposed integrated financial management system, Christensen's bill calls for the Secretary of the Interior to provide the system, "including appropriate computer hardware and software." The system would be available to the CFO and after five years would similarly become available to the reinstated OMB director.
"There is a need for accountability, Christensen said on Tuesday, adding that she "cannot in good conscience" allow fiscal irresponsibility to continue "and see the government collapse."
But the necessary changes "will not come without sacrifice," she said. "The pain will be borne across the board — shared by everyone."
According to Christensen, reactions to her initiative have been mixed. "The response I have been hearing on the street is positive," she said. "People are saying I did not go far enough." They "are uncertain about the future of the territory; they want someone to oversee the finances and spending of the government."
But she acknowledged that the public response of political leaders has been negative. "Elected officials are against it," she said. And her response is: "I urge them to read the bill."
In a few days, the measure should be posted in its entirety on the congressional "Thomas" legislative information Web site. Once it's up, it can be accessed by doing a search for bill No. H.R. 3589.
Christensen said she will be holding town meetings throughout the territory to discuss the proposal. "This is the beginning of a process," she said. "The people of the Virgin Islands have the opportunity to comment … We want a good solid bill."
She urged community groups to contact her offices and arrange speaking engagements. This can be done by calling 774-4408 on St. Thomas or 778-5900 on St. Croix.
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