Dec. 20, 2003 – The majority of people who testified Saturday at a St. John town meeting convened by Delegate to Congress Donna M. Christensen expressed their support for her federal bill to create a chief financial officer for the territory.
"If I had trouble on my finances, I get advice," St. John resident Steve Black said as the dozen people gathered at the Legislature building on St. John listened. Black took potshots at senators who spend money on things such as promoting events that turn out to be poorly attended.
St. John resident John Fuller said that Christiansen had done the right thing. "I'm behind it," he said.
On the other side of the coin, St. Thomas resident Glen Smith said the proposal was a step backward.
"The territory should be moving to more self-government," he said. He gave kudos to Christiansen, however, for her willingness "to step up to the plate."
Smith and the others who testified all acknowledged that the territory is in dire financial straits. Black spoke about the local government's habit of borrowing and floating bonds to pay operational expenses.
"That's how you get into trouble," Christiansen said.
St. John resident Ron Walker noted that other jurisdictions have seen financial improvements when they hired chief financial officers. He said that, given the state of the territory's finances, if the delegate didn't introduce this bill, one of her colleagues would.
"And it would be a stronger bill," Walker said.
Christiansen, who held similar hearings this week in St. Thomas and St. Croix, said the bill will be revised as the hearing process progresses.
"This is not the end, but the beginning of the process," she said. She said she expects to hold more meetings on the subject in January.
The bill would probably come before her colleagues in the first quarter of 2004, she estimated. However, she said that the V.I. Legislature could accomplish the same thing by passing a similar bill. And if someone else had a better idea, she would be sure to listen.
"The goal is the people are served," she said.
The bill calls for the governor to appoint a chief financial officer, with senators confirming the appointment. The job would exist for five years, at which time the territory should be on better financial footing.
If the governor and members of the Legislature can't come to agreement within 180 days of the bill's passage, the federal interior secretary would appoint someone in an acting capacity.
Under terms of Christensen's bill, the chief financial officer must have financial experience in either the public or private sector. The person would not set policy — that would still be left to the governor and senators — but would deal only with the territory's financial management.
"A bean counter," St. John resident Craig Barshinger said.
Christiansen that while the budget director already has the power to oversee the territory's spending, politics often intervene. The chief financial officer, although appointed by the governor, could not be fired unless he didn't do the job.
Thirty-some people showed up for the first of the three town meetings, held Wednesday night on St. Croix, and most were behind Christensen's efforts.
The 20-some people who attended the St. Thomas meeting on Thursday expressed opinions that ranged from pro to mixed to con.
The delegate's bill in its entirety can be accessed online at the federal government's Thomas legislation-tracking Web site. Print copies are available at her offices and at the public libraries on St. Croix and St. Thomas.
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