Jan. 1, 2004 – One story dominated the news in the Virgin Islands for 2003, the Source, many of its readers and various other media agree: the territory's fiscal crisis and the abject failure of the government to make any meaningful moves toward resolving it.
That story breaks into two parts:
The first involved oft-denied rumors from the start of the year about a huge looming deficit for fiscal year 2003, announcement by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull in March that the territory was, indeed, facing a fiscal crisis, and the "recovery package" he presented to the Legislature, calling for numerous new and increased taxes and a $235 million bond issue. In July the Senate rejected most of the tax measures but approved the bond borrowing.
The second part began when the governor failed to meet the May 31 statutory deadline for submitting his fiscal year 2004 budget proposal to the Legislature. It proceeded through six weeks of Senate Finance Committee hearings, submission of the administration budget on Aug. 29, countless meetings behind closed doors of majority senators and Government House officials, Senate passage of the budget on Nov. 24 and Turnbull's veto of same on Dec. 23.
At the end of the day the year, rather the government was $268 million deeper in debt (the bond issue, announced on Dec. 18, ended up being for that amount), with no spending cutbacks in sight or on the horizon, and the fiscal year 2003 budget re-instituted for FY 2004 with the governor vowing to seek additional appropriations.
For the Source, the other nine top stories of the year, in no particular order, were:
– The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department takeover of the V.I. Housing Authority on Aug. 20 because of financial mismanagement, after the VIHA executive director had instituted major cutbacks, the VIHA board had fired the executive director and the governor had dissolved the board and named his own interim board.
– St. Croix's unabated sewage system failures and U.S. Justice Department and District Court intervention after the government awarded a multimillion-dollar contract for sewer repairs to Global Resources Management, a recently formed St. Croix business with questionable qualifications but major political connections.
– The Senate's refusal to repeal its legalization (via a veto override on Dec. 23, 2002) of video lottery terminal operations on St. Thomas and St. John, public protests against VLTs, legal tangles between the administration and Southland Gaming, which holds the exclusive contract for VLT distribution in the territory, and their out-of-court settlement in August.
– District Court rulings rejecting the territory's method of assessing property values for tax purposes, including a moratorium on billings and collections imposed in May and lifted in August after legislation was passed providing taxpayers recourse in the case of billings based on assessments subsequently found to be too high or too low.
– Plans by the new owners of the derelict Yacht Haven property on St. Thomas, a company called IN-USVI, to rebuild the hotel and marina and develop adjacent filled land leased from The West Indian Co. The story involved Coastal Zone Management approval, appeals and court challenges by the Save Long Bay Coalition, Senate ratification in a special session called by the governor of the CZM permit and the lease of submerged lands, and announcement in November of an agreement between IN-USVI and Save Long Bay.
– The 25 percent increase in passenger and landing fees at the territory's airports approved by the Port Authority board in January and effective Feb. 1; subsequent protests, cutbacks and pullouts by airlines; and the VIPA board's reversal of itself on the matter in August, with the rollbacks taking effect on Oct. 1.
– Animal cruelty and the political barriers that for years have thwarted enactment of legislation that would make animal abuse a felony crime. The Source's report of a drowned dog found under the dock at the University of the Virgin Islands Marine Center, its three-part animal cruelty series in October and its account of the Christmas Eve euthanizing of four puppies that had been tortured over an extended period prompted the greatest reader response of the year.
– One "good news" story: Advances in the delivery of medical services locally, including the development of a cancer treatment center at Roy L. Schneider Hospital and a cardiac-care center at Juan F. Luis Hospital, capped by announcement on Dec. 8 that the St. Thomas facility and its St. John affiliate, the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center, have received provisional accreditation by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
– Delegate Donna M. Christensen's November introduction in Congress of legislation to establish a temporary (for five years) position of chief financial officer and to institute a permanent integrated financial-management system for the territory a move that met denouncement by the governor and a resolution of condemnation by the Legislature.
Among the also-rans on the Source's "short list" for the top 10 stories were these:
– November's torrential rains and flooding, and the subsequent declaration of a federal disaster, making the government and certain not-for-profit agencies that provide government-type services eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.
– The citing of U.S. Virgin Islands fishermen and the impounding of their vessels by the British Virgin Islands government on charges of fishing in B.V.I. waters without a permit or license. In a case adjudicated in October, two St. Thomas brothers were fined a total of $11,000 and were ordered to forfeit their boat, worth some $25,000.
– Inauguration of work on two major capital projects in the planning for longer than most folks could remember the Enighed Pond commercial port on St. John and the Crown Bay dock expansion on St. Thomas (another "good news" story).
– The government's failure to purchase St. Thomas's Lindqvist Beach when it was on the market, discussion of seeking to acquire it by eminent domain, and the recent clash between the new owners, who installed a fence preventing public access to the beach, and the Planning and Natural Resources Department, which fined them daily for doing so until they agreed to leave a gate open.
– The government's singular lack of progress in getting cruise lines to put St. Croix back on their itineraries.
Other stories cited by readers included government incompetence, government corruption, pollution, crime in general, rape and hate crimes in particular, the St. Croix economy in general, the issue of casino development in particular, and the public protests last January of hefty increases in the salaries of the governor, lieutenant governor and senators approved in the Dec. 23, 2002, Senate session and eventually vetoed by the governor, who had proposed the executive branch hikes to begin with.
Also suggested was another "good news" story the campaign to raise funds for a new and expanded animal-care center to replace the current facilities of the Humane Society of St. Thomas.
One reader, citing pollution and crime concerns, wrote that "the main problem is the failure of the V.I. government to realistically address these issues and the financial crisis that always seems to hang over these beautiful islands."
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