Gov. Kenneth Mapp told the League of Women Voters Saturday that his team is working to identify available but unused federal grant money in the territory to help pay for needed government services, while laying the groundwork for the introduction of new industries including technology, financial services, and robotics manufacturing.
"There is an enormous amount of federal dollars that we find available to the territory that we are not using," said Mapp, citing recent assessments of agencies including the Department of Health and the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
Mapp made the comments during a 40-minute keynote address to the League of Women Voters during their annual meeting at the Windward Passage Hotel. He discussed his administration’s plans to solve the territory’s economic woes in what he called "a very challenging time of very strained resources."
Mapp said that one assessment identified more than $15 million dollars in available federal funds that are not being utilized by the DOH, including money for mental health services, which the governor has said he is committed to expanding. Of the $2 to 3 million federal dollars set aside for mental health services annually, the VI government spends only about $500,000 of it, Mapp said.
In addition, Mapp said recent closings and reductions in hours of senior citizen centers on all three islands could have been prevented by the use of federal money that is available to the local government without the need for legislative approval or additional grant applications.
"There was absolutely no reason to close these centers," Mapp said. "Federal money was actually sitting there unspent."
Mapp said plans to open four senior centers across the territory, including the one on St. John, will soon be announced. The centers will be open eight hours a day, Monday through Friday. Mapp said the territory is purchasing four new senior citizen buses, and hiring 22 new government employees.
Turning his attention to DPNR, Mapp said $35 million allotted to the agency is being held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency until the local government completes the necessary paperwork to receive the money, some of which is years late.
"The EPA is holding money that it is ready to release to the government of the Virgin Islands if we simply get all the reports completed for as far back as fiscal year 2009," Mapp said. "When we say we have a $140 to $145 million operating deficit for the current fiscal year, $35 million of that is sitting at the EPA waiting to refund the general fund."
Mapp said he is putting new pressure on local agencies and the Office of Management and Budget to make sure local services that are eligible for federal grants receive them.
"We have beefed up our grants management office at OMB to be able to target getting all these federal programs in order," said Mapp.
Regarding longterm economic development plans for the territory, Mapp said his administration is interested in bringing high tech and financial service industries to the territory while working to improve the territory’s tourism product.
"The success of the Virgin Islands economy going forward rests on our ability to diversify," he said.
Mapp said he feels the economic driver of the Virgin Islands in the future will be high-tech and financial service industries. he said the Virgin Islands has a unique advantage in attracting data storage and management centers due to the fact that, thanks to the efforts of telecommunications company Global Crossing, the territory has the highest broadband capability in the Western hemisphere outside of New York and New Jersey.
Mapp said that companies such as Google and Microsoft have invested as much as $1 billion dollars in infrastructure alone in places from South Carolina to Denmark when bringing in data storage centers.
"If they did just five to ten percent of that work in the Virgin Islands, and we have the infrastructure to do it – we need to work on the cost of energy piece and the human resource development piece – I can say to you without fear of contradiction that you would not hear the words budget deficit uttered in the Virgin Islands for a very long time."
Mapp said high-tech industries bring high-paying jobs, and he is working closely with University of the Virgin Islands President David Hall to make sure the school’s curriculum will prepare young Virgin Islanders to fill them.
Mapp said he was also interested in shifting the territory’s approach to tourism.
"We need to not just look at how many boats can we put in the harbor and how many people can come off of those boats, but how can we do it in a way that the local economy can still function, that the infrastructure can handle the visitors when they come, and that they can be safe," he said.
Mapp said his administration will continue to support and work with the cruise industry, but will focus on attracting cruise visitors back for longer stays than the few hours that many cruise ships spend in V.I. ports.
"When you look at the customer surveys from the cruise ship passengers, you’ll find that many of the passengers are saying that their visits on the islands are too short. But [changing that] defies the business model of the industry, because the longer the stay on the island the more dollars they spend on the island, the less dollars they spend on the boat," said Mapp.
"We need to understand how to use the opportunity when passengers arrive on our shores to have their experience be such a positive experience that when they’re rushing them back on the ship, the passenger leaves with the impression and the feeling that there was more to do: ‘I wanted to see and experience more, and I’m going to have to fly back here and spend some time to do that.’"
Mapp also spoke Saturday about what he called a future "renaissance of professionalizing law enforcement" in the territory. Mapp, a former police officer, said his administration has partnered with a private entity whose founders and chief operating officers are the individuals responsible for restructuring and rebranding the New York Police Department under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Mapp said they will be assessing what needs to be done to professionalize all branches of V.I. law enforcement.
Saturday’s LWV meeting at the Windward Passage Hotel was the organization’s annual meeting, at which new governors traditionally give the keynote address following election years. Sens. Marvin Blyden and Myron D. Jackson were present at the meeting, as were representatives of Sen. Jean Forde’s office.