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'Determination and Hope' Theme of State of the Territory Address

Jan. 22, 2008 — Amidst a mountain of challenges and in the face of "uncertainties and the unsettled nature of things," the state of the territory is one of determination and hope, Gov. John deJongh Jr. said Tuesday evening, as he delivered his second State of the Territory speech to a packed audience in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Chambers.
DeJongh reiterated this statement frequently throughout the evening, as he sought to present positive solutions to issues such as government corruption, an unsteady economic climate — both locally and nationally — and crises in public education, law enforcement and energy use. He used the past year to thoroughly assess each component of government, from the centrally regulated departments and agencies to the semi-autonomous entities. The governor said he has moved past the planning stage on the implementation of many corrective measures and has already begun the long journey on the path toward government transparency and accountability.
Some of the issues introduced during last year's State of the Territory Address have already been completed, deJongh added, while others — such as getting all fourth graders throughout the territory to read at grade level — might take years to accomplish.
"But our people have hopes and dreams for themselves and for their families," he said. "They have placed their trust — and yes, their hopes — in us, and we must not, we will not, let them down."
Much like last year, deJongh stressed the need for major reform and reorganization, and laid out a three-pronged template for change. First on the list is fixing the "broken" government, he said — an approach that includes reconciling and maintaining the territory's finances, and bringing back local control to government entities, such as the V.I. Housing Authority, that have been taken over by the feds.
"And, when we get our house in order, the third-party fiduciary will be able to go home, too," the governor said, amidst thunderous applause and cheers from the crowd. To the surprise of many, deJongh also laid out plans to disband the controversial Waste Management Authority and establish a new office within the central government that could be subject to financial and administrative oversight by the governor and Legislature. Plans to reorganize the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA) and dissolve the Narcotics Strike Force in hopes of maximizing the Police Department's dwindling manpower resources also received much support from the audience — and drew several smiles from senators gathered on the floor.
Nurturing economic development — particularly growth sustained by public-private partnerships — is also on the top of the strategy list, he said. DeJongh added that in fiscal year 2007, the government saw a 3.6-percent increase in the gross territorial product — amounting to some $4.1 billion — but he also spoke of the need to stabilize the Economic Development Commission's tax-incentive program, re-direct some tourism efforts to overseas destinations and monitor, with caution, the reorganization of Cruzan Rum Industries.
A third goal, deJongh said, is to "bring order out of chaos" and piece back together the central government, whose semi-autonomous and independent agencies have been functioning on their own. Referencing the recent indictments of several former government officials, the governor added that government corruption "is now being aggressively pursued."
"Let me assure you that what you have seen is just the beginning," deJongh promised. "Corruption, particularly government corruption, undermines our most basic responsibilities. It robs us of resources to invest in our students and teachers, in our hospitals and health clinics, to meet the needs of those with special needs, to fix potholes and provide the essentials to improve everyday living. Even more importantly, it shakes the confidence and faith of the people we were elected to serve."
Fixing a "Broken" Government: Crime and Education
Over the past few months, both government officials and community members have raised much concern over rising crime levels and the need to bring more reform to the territory's public schools. Most recently, press conferences conducted by VIPD top brass have laid out new crime-fighting initiatives, while deJongh last month revealed his choice for the territory's new Education commissioner.
In his speech, the governor said that as far as solving crime goes, a zero-tolerance policy would be extended across the board, starting with arrests that run through the VIPD and criminal cases that get pushed through the Department of Justice. Improving conditions within the territory's prisons, along with providing health care and other services to inmates, are also imperative, deJongh said, showing his support for a Senate initiative designed to split the Bureau of Corrections from Justice.
"First and foremost, visibility, consistency and a zero-tolerance policy will be the norm and not the exception," he said. "Road stops, coupled with roadblocks, increased camera surveillance, more bike patrols and more police on their feet and not in their cars, have been seen and will continue to be seen."
The Police auxiliary force will also be reinstated, the governor added, and a new cadet corps — which would help get the territory's youth more interested in law-enforcement opportunities — will be established. In an effort to resolve the department's manpower shortage, experienced police officers from outside the territory will be transferred in, he said, while increased communications between local and federal agencies will be stepped up.
Meanwhile, local law enforcement personnel– like every other government employee — have to become more customer-friendly, and must be held accountable for their actions, deJongh said.
"Because in many ways, the deepest problem we face is one of attitude and culture," the governor said. "For too long, disdain and disregard have been allowed to become the culture of our organization."
Shifting gears to the crisis in Education, deJongh said that the confirmation of LaVerne Terry, recently selected by the governor to lead the troubled department, would represent the "final piece of the puzzle" in the putting together of his cabinet. Describing education as "the most critical element in each child's future," deJongh spoke of the need to catch the territory's system up to its global competitors, provide ongoing training for teachers and paraprofessionals, embark on a capital investment program for local schools and revamp the local Board of Vocational Education.
DeJongh said he has also tapped his wife, Cecile, to head up a newly established Children and Family Council, which he said is needed to develop a "holistic approach to supporting our children and improving their school readiness and early learning."

Federal and Caribbean Relations
In addition to restoring local control to federally run entities like the V.I. Housing Authority, deJongh said the implementation of a new capital-investment program would also help to protect the territory from falling prey to "several years of economic slowdown," or recession, which is become an increasing national threat.
"That is why we are reconfiguring our focus at the Government Development Bank to provide performance bond support to our local contractors and applying to have it (the bank) designated a certified development corporation to support the commercial banks in lending to small businesses that seek to expand," he explained.
Government money will also be made available to assist in subdivision and residential development, the governor added. While more emphasis is being placed on developing the local agriculture industry, the formation of a Caribbean Fishery Management Council — which will he
lp to address long-standing issues with the British Virgin Islands — would also protect local fishermen, he said.
"We also identified and secured acreage in Coral Bay, St. John, to lease to residents interested in crop production — a first-time opportunity for St. John residents," deJongh said.
With the expansion of health-care initiatives — such as maximizing federal revenues to cover limitations in Medicare and Medicaid programs — $100 million will also be needed to subsidize the territory's two hospitals, cancer and cardiac centers and a government health-insurance plan. Looking to retirees, deJongh added that with the floating of pension-obligation bonds, which will done within the next five months, the government will also help to nourish a "massively underfunded" Government Employees' Retirement System.
Closing loopholes in the territory's EDC program and securing its viability through the passage of a bill about to make its way through the U.S. Congress will also be on the forefront of discussion as the nation moves toward electing a new president, deJongh said. Meanwhile, economic-development initiatives will be implemented across the territory, including the push for hotel development on St. Croix, a strategy to increase cruise-ship passenger rates on St. Thomas and the installation of a planner for St. John, he added.
"Let me reiterate," deJongh said after laying out his plans. "The state of our territory is one of determination and hope. It is up to us to show that determination. And it is up to us to redeem that hope."
Rounding out his speech amidst loud cheers from the audience, deJongh added, "As we begin the new year, let me state this firmly: In this moment, when the eyes of the people are upon us, it is time for us to find a more effective way to work together and do better for our people and our community. At the end of the day, the state of the territory is not about the trees, it is about the forest. Government is not about the numbers, it is about what we accomplish. It is not about the bills we pass, it is about the future we create — a future that we can only create together."
Here is the full text of the State of the Territory Address.
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