Feb. 1, 2005 All heads turned at the sound of horns in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall Monday night in anticipation of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, who proudly walked down the red carpet to deliver his seventh State of the Territory Address.
The 15 senators and Delegate Donna Christensen were eagerly waiting Turnbull's remarks on the territory's overall condition.
For some the end result was an "honest" picture and they were "impressed" by Turnbull's 90-minute speech. However, others felt "disappointed" and dissatisfied at Turnbull's inability to address certain issues. The only surprise in the speech was his mention of his support for election reform in the form of sub districting or municipal government.
"The state of the territory is one of challenge and of hope," Turnbull told the audience, which included members of the judicial branch, the governor's cabinet and senior staff, and the heads of various governmental agencies.
He added, "The past year saw important and substantial progress in our long path to financial recovery, fiscal stability and economic opportunity. But it also saw serious new challenges as well, particularly with the enactment of new federal tax law changes that will affect our Economic Development Commission (EDC) program."
Turnbull said his administration has mobilized to address the new challenges as well as the old challenges that have continued to plague the territory, particularly in the areas of education, public safety, health care, human services and housing.
He added that he would partner with the private sector to bring members of the U.S. Congress to the Virgin Islands to learn more about the needs of the territory.
"We will reach out to members of both national political parties," Turnbull said. "The only criterion will be a willingness to support the Virgin Islands."
The governor took time to highlight the achievements of his administration during the past year, but rarely afforded time during his oratory to address problems.
Turnbull told the audience his administration met its goal of increasing government revenues. Government tax revenues increased nearly 20 percent from $464 million in 2003 to $564 million in 2004. This was a result of increased revenue collections from individual income taxes, corporate income taxes, real property taxes and gross receipt taxes.
"While the strong revenue growth allowed us to achieve structural budget balance in 2004, I must caution that these increased revenues merely replaced the revenues we were forced to borrow in 2003 in wake of the national economic downturn," Turnbull said.
The Gross Territorial Product grew by a solid 3 percent, the governor said, led by business investment, tourism and consumer spending.
Turnbull attributed much of the revenue increase to growth in the rum industry and the Economic Development Commission program, which contributed $127 million to the territory's coffers approximately one-third of all income tax revenues and supported 3,000 jobs in the territory, directly or indirectly.
The governor pledged to work with Christensen and others to lobby those in Washington for the protection of the EDC program.
Turnbull mentioned the ability of his administration to convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency to forgive the local government its $185 million debt balance on the Hurricane Marilyn disaster loan. This has resulted in the government bonds receiving an upgraded rating, he said.
The governor praised his financial team for their efforts in this regard and asked them to stand for a round of applause.
"It is slightly ironic that one of the persons you are now applauding, Mr. Mills, is the same person that some in this territory would like to replace with an un-elected and unaccountable chief financial officer," Turnbull said, referring to Christensen's recent decision to reintroduce her CFO bill. "Our success in 2004 in growing our revenues, holding the line on spending, reducing the size of the government, and eliminating 20 percent of our total debt simply tells truth to the lie that Virgin Islanders are incapable of governing themselves, especially in the area of financial management."
He added, "It would be a good thing if our delegate to Congress withdraws her recently reintroduced bill to impose a CFO on the Virgin Islands. We really do not need it."
Turnbull noted other areas where his administration had made "strides," including:
– Increase in visitors to the territory 2.6 million in 2004, up 12.2 percent from 2003. This includes a "double-digit" increase in air arrivals, making it the "strongest period of growth in a decade." Cruise passengers also increased by 12.7 percent and St. Croix also received some cruise passengers with the start of fuel bunkering on that island,
– Installation of security cameras in five of the public schools,
– Reinstitution of the Neighborhood Crime Watch program, which led to the arrest of a "significant" number of criminals,
– Implementing the No Child Left Behind Act locally,
– Entering a two-year agreement between the Department of Education and the University of the Virgin Islands to develop a V.I. school accountability system,
– Re-accreditation of the Juan F. Luis Hospital,
– And completion of the construction of 35 single family homes at Mount Pleasant.
The governor also made mention of several "new" initiatives that he hopes to implement this year. They include:
– Pursuing an initiative to seek an equitable share of the excise taxes collected on gasoline manufactured on St. Croix,
– Rezoning legislation to allow for the removal and temporary storage of confiscated cars and the establishment of a tire-shredding operation,
– Submittal of legislation that will substantially increase the fines and penalties for littering and for abandoning vehicles to $1,000 per offense,
– Commencing construction of the Coral Bay police substation,
– Providing a funding source for the operation of the V.I. Supreme Court and requesting the Public Finance Authority to authorize funding for the initial studies for the preparation and engineering and architectural drawings for the establishment of the court facilities and chambers for the justices,
– Supporting legislation to adopt the Revised Organic Act of 1954 as amended to be the territory's constitution,
– And supporting legislation to reform the Government Employees Retirement System.
Following the address, other elected officials were anxious to comment on Turnbull's remarks.
Christensen said she thought the governor covered all the "major issues."
"I was surprised that he came down so strongly on the CFO bill," Christensen said. "I think he needs to read it again and reassess his objections."
Christensen said other jurisdictions like Washington, D.C., have benefitted from having a CFO.
"I thought that the governor highlighted the positives of his administration well," Sen. Ronald Russell said. "However, I think he was short on health and education."
Russell noted that Turnbull did not mention anything about repairs for schools such as the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School.
"We've got to deal with funding for those things," Russell said.
Russell said he disagrees with the idea of adopting the Revised Organic Act as the V.I. Constitution, adding, the territory should come up with its own.
"I am encouraged that he wants to work with the Legislature," Russell added. "But I will wait to see, especially for St. Croix."
Freshman Sen. Liston Davis said he thought there were "very few revelations" in Turnbull's speech.
"He failed to address some areas of concern," Davis said, adding he was hoping the governor would speak on issues of labor, the ambulatory surgical cente
r, school repairs, status of a crime lab, and public transportation, among other issues plaguing the territory presently.
Senate President Lorraine Berry said she had hoped Turnbull would have talked more about pay raises for government employees.
"The cost of everything is going up," Berry said. "We should take care of our responsibility to our people and pay increases."
Berry said Turnbull did not address the challenges facing the territory adequately.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said Turnbull's speech accurately reflected "the true state of the territory's affairs." Malone added that he is in support of many of the governor's initiatives.
"I am very happy about national lobbying efforts," Malone said, adding that as a "small entity" the territory has to be vigilant in its efforts to express its needs to Washington.
Sen. Louis P. Hill said he was looking forward to working with the governor concerning Government Employee Retirement System reform, which Hill is currently working on.
"I thought the governor gave a pretty accurate description of the state of the territory," Hill said. "I'm pleased to know that he will be speaking to the Water and Power Authority."
Turnbull had said in his speech that he would meet with WAPA to discuss the rising cost of electricity.
Sen. Craig Barshinger said, "I thought that what we saw tonight was Gov. Turnbull at his best. Overall, I was pleased with the address."
However, Barshinger said Turnbull failed to address corruption in government and misuse of public funds.
"It would have been timely to affirm our commitment to the proper use of public funds," Barshinger said.
Barshinger said he was glad to hear Turnbull mention St. John and its particular needs.
"I was just a little disappointed when he spoke of conservation and did not mention the territorial park system that was implemented," Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said.
Donastorg said he was also glad to hear the governor mention that he would meet with the V.I. Water and Power Authority.
"I am hopeful that when I send up my legislation for the removal of the street lighting surcharge that he will support it," Donastorg said. "I need his support for the people of the territory. The true test of the pudding is in the taste."
Here is the full text of the State of the Territory Address 2005.
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