Jan. 30, 2006 — Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's final State of the Territory address was upbeat when focusing on economic aspects of the territory, and he touted the growth of the V.I. economy as part of his accomplishments during his past seven years in office. However, many senators were critical of his failure to adequately address social issues, such as education and crime.
Turnbull said the territory saw $633 million in revenues this past year, which left the government with a surplus at the end of fiscal year 2005. Turnbull added that this improved the territory's financial performance "across the board," with individual income taxes increasing to a "record" $366 million, corporate income taxes to $117 million, and gross receipts taxes to $126 million.
But the governor skimmed over the tougher issues regarding the state of the territory's schools and the increase in violent crime, which was highlighted by 41 murders in 2005.
While generally referring to the speech as "positive," most senators were critical of his failure to address the social ills that are still problematic. Furthermore, no mention was made of St. John, despite the racial and economic unrest which surfaced this past year. After the speech, Sen. Craig W. Barshinger said he was concerned that Turnbull did not discuss St. John, particularly in regards to the skyrocketing real estate values, which could force many residents to lose their homes.
At least one top official felt that the administration's economic successes were at least in part spurred by the specter of a chief financial officer. "The threat of a CFO coming in, I think, is one of the reasons behind us achieving a surplus this year," Delegate Donna Christensen said after the speech.
Turnbull said that "despite new and continuing challenges," this past year saw solid economic growth, record revenues, reduced unemployment, increased investment in the territory's public infrastructure, salary increases for government employees, and important advances in schools.
He said that when he took office in 1999, the territory had an accumulated General Fund deficit of over $288 million, a fiscal year 1998-1999 deficit of $100 million, and cash-flow imbalances. He also said the government at the time was "bloated" and spending was "out of control."
Turnbull said the government was strengthened in large part by the success of the Economic Development Commission's tax benefits program, which he said "has the power to transform the economy of the Virgin Islands."
However, even as he spoke about the EDC program, concerns were raised in the territory on Monday when the rules and regulations – which have threatened local EDC businesses since they were amended in the Jobs Creation Act of 2004 – came back from the U.S. Department of Treasury.
"We still have some concerns," Christensen said. She explained that Treasury officials have not changed the 183-day residency requirement (See: "V.I. Officials Disappointed with New EDC Residency Regulations"). Christensen added that she, along with Turnbull, would redouble efforts to push Congressional officials for the changes.
Turnbull also mentioned that a contract was signed to develop a new financial management system for the government. But Christensen was skeptical about its efficacy. She said the system's successes would depend upon all the departments providing accurate and complete financial information. "This does not always happen," she said. "And I still think that we may need to have an independent party come in and oversee the management of the system."
Turnbull also talked about economic development on St. Croix, but the St. Croix senators said they wanted to see the improvement before they could believe anything was happening. "The governor mentioned that unemployment had dropped in St. Croix," Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said. "I don't see that. He talked about more jobs on St. Croix – I don't see that either. The whole speech was nice, but how real was it?"
Despite Turnbull's happiness about having a surplus budget, senators were hoping to find out exactly how much was collected in unanticipated revenues this past fiscal year. "We weren't given a specific number," Nelson said. "We were told that after the governor's supplemental budget was passed in September, we still had extra money left to use. But there have also been rumors that we over-appropriated, and there are also rumors that we have almost $1 billion left. Which one is it?"
Turnbull briefly discussed the more than $1 billion debt owed by the government to the Government Employees Retirement System. While the government has yet to come up with a way to take care of this unfunded liability, Turnbull said his fiscal team is working on submitting a proposal.
"The seeming intractability of some of our challenges in education must not cause us to doubt the considerable progress we made in 2005, nor our commitment to excellence in education," Turnbull said when talking about improvements made in the territory's public schools over the past year.
Turnbull said he was proud that the territory's four public high schools had been accredited, that $14 million had been appropriated for the purchase of new textbooks and other supplies for schools, and that many schools were able to raise their national test scores.
He also said the administration would "immediately intensify" efforts to rid the schools of "vexing problems" related to maintenance – especially with regards to the problems of molds, mildew, and moisture that have been responsible for the closing of three schools on St. Croix.
The governor said a comprehensive school renovation and construction plan will be initiated in the upcoming year to address these issues.
"These promises have all been made before," said Sen. Liston Davis after the speech. "Money has already been appropriated to deal with some of these mold issues, and still we see nothing being done."
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville said simply, "Our children are angry; they don't want to hear the rhetoric."
Turnbull also discussed plans to replace Addelita Cancryn Junior High School on St. Thomas with a new $25 million junior high school on land owned by the V.I. Port Authority, along with the construction of a $27 million third high school on the western end of St. Thomas. Turnbull said these projects would be financed by the proceeds of a new planned bond issue.
After the speech Senate President Lorraine L. Berry said she did not know where the funding for the third school would be coming from. She said the territory has run out of bonding capacity, and that the only bonds the territory is focused on right now are the ones that will fund GERS' $1 billion unfunded liability.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone added that instead of building a new high school, the government should focus on constructing a new vocational school, where students could focus on learning skills and trades pertinent to the territory's infrastructure.
Turnbull attributed the territory's rising homicide rate to the prevalence of gang- and drug-related violence in the community. To solve these problems, Turnbull said the Police Department would have "more officers on the streets and more police cars on the roads and in neighborhoods than ever before."
Turnbull also said the VIPD's biggest accomplishment was the completion and implementation of a strategic plan, which focuses on building networks to solve problems. Citizen Integration Teams, where members of the community work alongside officers to help solve various problems, have also created "new solutions to the
many challenges that face our territory," Turnbull said.
However, after the speech, Nelson said that while Turnbull mentioned the police force, he said nothing about the Bureau of Corrections — an agency wracked with problems. (Corrections officers staged a protest outside the Legislative building early Monday morning, hoping to turn Turnbull's attention to some long-standing pay problems and the deplorable conditions of the territory's jails.)
"Some of the bread-and-butter issues were definitely missing from his speech," Nelson said.
Turnbull also said that more than $10 million would be spent by the government in the next year to improve firefighting services in the territory. Turnbull added that he would also be working closely with Christensen to get a permanent U.S. Customs and Border Protection service unit permanently stationed in the territory to curb the "flood" of illegal immigrants into the territory.
Turnbull ended his speech on a bittersweet note by saying that the position of governor is not an easy one to hold. "But it affords men and women of goodwill an unusual opportunity to do good and to make the lives of the people of the Virgin Islands better," he said.
Turnbull also offered thanks to fellow government officials, family members and friends. He also thanked the community for twice electing him to "do this awesome job."
After the speech, Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. humorously suggested that Turnbull's enthusiasm was due to the fact that he is almost done with the task of governance. "The glee in the governor is that he is gone … he is getting out of here," White added.
To view the full text of the governor's speech, click the following link: The State of the Territory Address 2006.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.