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Governor Speaks to Young Professionals

Gov. John P. deJongh spoke at a youth professionals forum Thursday night, suggesting that the territory would probably be forced into large-scale borrowing in order to keep its government operating next year.

Organized and sponsored by the St. Thomas-St. John Young Professionals Network, it was designed to utilize social media and to appeal to the under-40 population of the islands’ business world.

The group solicited questions via Facebook, Twitter and email. A public town hall meeting at the Windward Passage Hotel was broadcast live-stream on the internet.

About 60 people attended in person, and Africah Harrigan, a YPN officer and television personality, presented the questions received in advance.

Responding to a question about the 2013 revenue projections, deJongh said the government is looking at a $100 million shortfall that won’t be erased by taxes and fees. More spending cuts also are likely, he said.

The financial crisis was the center of attention. DeJongh fielded questions about the effects of the HOVENSA closing, government and private sector layoffs, the high cost of electricity, his recent gross receipts tax increase, hotel development and property taxes.

He defended the gross receipts tax increase, noting that it had been 4 percent for 20 years, before recently going to 4.5 and, last month, to 5 percent. He said serious efforts are underway to collect delinquent gross receipts, property and other taxes. His administration has established a task force comprised of revenue agents, financial analysts and an attorney to look for outstanding revenues from 2008 and prior years.

DeJongh said he shared a questioner’s concern about a recent forced sale of properties on St. John which were all purchased by one individual. He said the administration wants to work out reasonable payment plans so families can retain their property.

He was optimistic about development, saying a lot of companies are considering locating in the Virgin Islands, some attracted by the V.I. Water and Power Authority’s search for alternate energy sources, some looking at taking over some of the HOVENSA property. Name brands in the territory – such as Marriott and Home Depot – instill investor confidence.

Asked why he increased the salary for the newly inducted police commissioner from just under $100,000 to $120,000, deJongh said he gave the same increase to the other cabinet member sworn into office last week, the health commissioner. He said the increase was needed to attract top notch people who had to uproot themselves to take a position that might not last more than a few years.

Someone asked how deJongh would describe his time being governor?

“In one word?” he asked. “Great.”

While the financial crisis is challenging, he admitted, “it’s an exciting time.”

DeJongh added that what he finds most challenging is not the financial but the “social issues” facing the community, such as troubled youth.

For a highlight of his tenure, he listed efforts to have agencies work together. And his advice for the next governor: “Take the long term view.”

YPN had help in scoring the governor for a guest speaker; his son, John deJongh, became president of the group in January.

Formed in 2008 under the umbrella of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, the local YPN is patterned after groups on the mainland. It promotes networking, community service and involvement.

The younger deJongh said plans call for a town hall type forum every two months. The group also is working to establish its own nonprofit status, separate from the Chamber.

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