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ST. THOMAS — It was his fourth State of the Territory Address (SoTA) before the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands, one that political observers deemed his most consequential before facing reelection in November. During the address, Governor Kenneth Mapp — standing before a packed room of senators and government officials at the Earl B. Ottley Legislature — delivered an hourslong speech that he hoped would spark optimism in the hearts of residents of the territory, as he spoke on healthcare, the Government Employees Retirement System (G.E.R.S.), funding for the recovery of the territory following Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the expansion of the Limetree Bay Terminals for an additional storage capacity of 15 million barrels of oil, education, road construction, housing and, in closing, asking the people of the territory for four more years in office to finish what he started.
“The state of our territory is good, it is hopeful. But the demands and burdens on our shoulders are heavy. If we do our work and make the right decisions, the prognosis for our future is bright. Tonight, I am upbeat, full of energy, because you, the people of the Virgin Islands, have chosen a path to a brighter future. Hurricanes Irma and Maria have done all the harm that they can do,” the governor said.
In the opening moments of his address, Mr. Mapp lingered somewhat on the condition of the government when he first took office, speaking of the difficult position that he met the government in. “In 2015 Lt. Governor Potter and I were handed a government reeling from a shrinking economic base, reduced tax revenues, private businesses closing, rising unemployment levels in the private sector, all trying to survive in a territory boasting the highest cost for power anywhere under the American flag,” Mr. Mapp said.
The governor then moved on to some positive news, announcing that Limetree Bay Terminals had invested over $200 million in the south shore facility, and that the company was expanding for additional storage capacity. On tax collection, he said the Bureau of Internal Revenue, led by Director Marvin Pickering, had collected $126.3 million in delinquent taxes in the last three years, and an additional $23 million in unpaid property taxes had been collected by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.
Those efforts, the governor said, helped his administration maintain liquidity. “We have been aggressive in our efforts over the past three years to address short-term liquidity issues and long-term financial concerns by increasing collections, cutting spending, spurring economic growth and creating new revenue streams,” he said.
Mr. Mapp spoke of tax refunds, announcing before an extended audience of thousands of Virgin Islanders what he made known to The Consortium in December: Mr. Mapp said he’d directed Mr. Pickering and Dept. of Finance Commissioner Valdamier Collens, to start issuing tax refunds twice monthly. “This mandate began Friday, January 19 and will continue as long as we can stay the course or become current in the distribution of the refunds,” Mr. Mapp said.
He announced that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had recently approved $600 million to fund the Sheltering & Temporary Essential Power Program (STEP), which the governor said will provide roofs for approximately 12,000 homes throughout the territory. “This single program is expected to generate, at a minimum, another 2,500 jobs throughout our islands and place permanent roofs on the homes of our people,” he said. The territory’s leader said the government has retained consulting firms Witt O’Brien’s and Ernst & Young to help identify, expedite, maximize, track, and document federal disaster relief and funding.
The governor spent a considerable amount of time recalling what he deemed as his administration’s successes following the 2017 storms, and he thanked organizations and individuals who helped along the way.
Mr. Mapp went off script to explain how the federal government has traditionally released disaster aid funds, as he sought to clarify how the territory would receive the $7.5 billion that Mr. Mapp has requested. He said the money would not be issued all at once, but in intervals, to fund various projects. That is, of course, if and how much funding the federal government decides to provide.
Much of the governor’s address focused on securing federal dollars to help move the islands forward. There was no clear path forward on how the territory would progress if that plan failed. And a lot of what was highlighted were already noted in multiple press conferences the governor has held, including the mentioning of $250 million in low-interest loans approved by the federal government for the U.S.V.I. under the community disaster loan program. Another portion of the address focused on thanking the various departments and agencies that the governor said were indelible to his administration’s efforts following the storms.
On projects in the making, the governor mentioned the horse racing facilities to be built in each district that he has said would spur sports tourism in the territory. He also spoke of the Paul E. Joseph Stadium project, on which he said construction had resumed following Hurricane Maria.
But aside from seeking federal dollars, there was no clear plan to fix the many woes facing so many areas of the government. On G.E.R.S., Mr. Mapp said the government should not allow it fail, without giving any suggestion on how to save it, aside from seeking new individuals to run the board. G.E.R.S. has a pension liability of over $4 billion, and it is projected to collapse in 2023 or earlier, potentially bringing down the entire VI economy with it.
On Education, the governor spoke of seeking federal dollars to repair and rebuild schools, but there was no discussion on how to stop the constant flow of educators out of the territory — many of whom have complained about the low salary and heavy biweekly deductions from their pay.
And there was no solution given on how to bridge a budget deficit nearing $300 million.
Even so, Mr. Mapp spoke with hope about the territory’s economy. And he promised bondholders that the U.S.V.I. would not default on its debt, noting the strength of the territory’s Gross Receipt Tax bonds, which he said has been bolstered considerably by hurricane recovery-related commerce.
“Bondholders can be assured that their investments in Virgin Islands’ securities are safe, secure, and valuable. Both of our rum producers are operating and shipping rum products to the US mainland,” Mr. Mapp said. “Our Gross Receipts Revenue Bonds are more secure and valuable given the devastation caused by two Category 5 hurricanes. Consumer buying power, consumption, construction, and employment will remain robust for the foreseeable future as we rebuild our lives and businesses as well as repair and construct numerous public facilities throughout the territory.”
The governor closed by asking for the support of Virgin Islanders for another four years, “so we may continue to work on your behalf to build a better, brighter, and stronger Virgin Islands beyond 2018.”
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