Source Manager’s Journal: Renovations

Sometimes it is kind of reassuring to see that the Virgin Islands isn’t so far out of the American mainstream in our sad and decadent times. Even when the mainstream that it’s in is way out of date. Here are a couple of examples, both brought to mind by the Gov. Kenneth Mapp Administration’s budget proposal for $2 million for "renovations to executive offices" and a total executive office budget of more than $12 million for a jurisdiction that is smaller than Green Bay, Wis., or Greeley, Colo.

First, there is the drama of the administration and the Senate, which is not unlike a hearing in one of our pathetic state legislatures or the embarrassing U.S. House of Representatives. And we will see a similar spectacle when the Republican Party has its convention to nominate a fascist next week.

Almost 100 years ago, H. L. Mencken described the scene at a political convention like this: "It is vulgar, it is ugly, it is stupid, it is tedious … and yet it is somehow charming. One sits through long sessions wishing all the delegates and alternates were dead and in hell – and then suddenly there comes a show so gaudy and hilarious, so melodramatic and obscene, so unimaginably exhilarating and preposterous that one lives a gorgeous year in an hour."

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Doesn’t it remind you of the V.I. Senate? The only problem is that, to truly enjoy the show, you have to be a total cynic, as Mencken was. You have to ignore the fact that the $2 million could actually be put to some good purpose and meet some real need in communities with lots of real needs.

Then we can go back further in history for another enjoyable comparison. The governor’s budget request is for "mandatory costs and planned initiatives," along with "other services and charges." As usual in the Virgin Islands, what these "mandatory costs" and "other services and charges" are gets a little hazy, and, also, in the end, something funny usually happens on the way to the "renovations."

In the 1860s, New York City was under the control of the infamous Boss Tweed ring. Tweed’s corruption was so staggering that it still stands as a model that is hard to beat. One of its achievements was what is known as the Tweed Court House in lower Manhattan, now the headquarters for the New York City Department of Education. In the history of the whole world, going back either hundreds of millions or 7,000 years, depending on what book you read, it is the most expensive building – square foot for square foot – ever built.

Like the Office of the Governor, the Tweed Court House also included "mandatory costs," "other services and charges," and lots of items like the $80,000 "motor vehicle that will provide for the safety and protection of the governor." For example, there was the Tweed invoice that read, "brooms, shovels, etc. …. $50,000." And the carpenter who got paid the equivalent of $4.9 million for one month’s work in a building with no woodwork. Or the plasterer who earned $1.8 million for two days of work.

As Mencken said, it is all vulgar, ugly and stupid, but it is a great show. Until you step back and look at the costs to the lives of people. Then the charm wears off pretty fast.

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