St. Thomas — One year ago, Governor Albert Bryan Jr. delivered his first State of the Territory Address at the Capitol Building in Charlotte Amalie before the newly elected 33rd Legislature. The State of the Territory Address — similar in nature to the President of the United States delivering a State of the Union Address — is the largest stage a sitting governor in the U.S. Virgin Islands has every January.
During his second address, the Governor shared details and milestones for his administration including, missteps in the past administration and difficulties navigating the “bureaucracy” of the federal government as the territory worked to rebuild after the devastating 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season. This analysis is being updated periodically.
The Bryan-Roach administration has become, perhaps the most transparent administration in modern Virgin Islands history. The administration launched a fully functional transparency website (transparency.vi.gov) weeks after taking office — becoming a first for the Virgin Islands. The website, though primitive in nature allows visitors to track total General Fund expenditures, total General Fund revenues, the remaining expenditure budget and salaries for all employees hired by the Virgin Islands Government.
The website appears to repopulate based on data entered into a spreadsheet that relays updated figures in the form of charts, graphs, and lists. Because of this design, it loads extremely slow at times but generally works as intended if patient enough. To be transparent is to also be forthcoming. Government House has faced increased pressure from Virgin Islanders and media outlets in pursuit of public information.
Today, everything we wish to know is available at the push of a button. Not many residents (and the media is also learning this as well) know that the process of releasing public information can be tedious, often going through many channels, redactions, and approvals before the press gets its hands on it.
To expand on the promise of transparency, the Bryan-Roach administration will need to find innovative ways to keep the public informed while keeping the government running without distractions.
Government House has also stumbled with gauging what type of public information the public wants, and how frequently residents want access to that information, often leading to media reports questioning their version of transparency and openness. As the media pings various government departments for answers, it often distracts officials form focusing on getting results voters often demanded in the previous election. Finding an innovative way to compile, redact, and decimate public information will allow the administration to keep the public informed while protecting sensitive information.
Disaster Recovery and Mitigation
Bryan dedicated a significant chunk of his speech to discussing roads, infrastructure, and federal projects and funds that have been approved to repair them. Because disaster recovery made up a large portion of the governor’s address, this section is worthy of a seperate article to fully digest what it means for residents, private companies and federal partners operating in the territory. Since 2017, each U.S. territory has been affected by at least one cartographic cyclone that required the federal government to render aid and assistance.
That means the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico were each affected by natural disasters that prompted emergency or disaster declarations by the White House. Since then a number of states have also been affected by powerful hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts promoting federal response.
Bryan also took a few subliminal shots at the federal government’s response and treatment of the territories in the wake of increasing natural disasters, saying in his speech, “while the promise of billions of dollars in federal recovery aid existed, we quickly recognized the Government of the Virgin Islands did not yet have the capacity required to navigate the vast bureaucracy necessary to access those funds.”
While federal dollars have been appropriated by Congress to assist the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, both still recovering from hurricanes Irma and Maria, a significant amount of those designated funds have not reached local governments, require certain conditions to be met before they are released, or are currently not available to be spent due to federal restrictions. For instance, the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority will begin receiving roughly $600 million for infrastructure upgrades and disaster mitigation in 2020 — over 20 months after Irma and Maria devastated power grids in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Bryan’s address thanked the federal government for their assistance, lightly scolded them for adding “red tape” to the territory’s recovery and reiterated the territory’s commitment to using disaster funds with integrity.
Technology & Infrastructure
In his 12,324 word speech, Byran did not mention the internet or broadband initiatives at all. The Virgin Islands is currently one of the slowest producers of broadband speeds in the nation, while simultaneously having one of the most expensive broadband rates in the United States. With a rapidly changing economy in the Virgin Islands, ignoring broadband upgrades and innovations like 5G, the Virgin Islands economy stands to lose in the region and the broader global economy as competing islands continue to outpace the territory by upgrading critical infrastructure.
“I often say I am the first digital governor in the Virgin Islands,” Bryan said. “The embrace of technology and its ability to improve service delivery in the Government of the Virgin Islands is core to my approach to governance.”
In a previous report in 2019, State of the Territory News dubbed Governor Bryan as the first digital governor of the Virgin Islands, that analysis based on his campaign performance and digital prowess. In this analysis, the Mint Team must recant its previous stance based.
While the Bryan-Roach administration has made strides in areas like standardizing online applications with the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Licensing and Consumer, key areas in tech innovation have been left out.
“Our economic development programs have benefited us for years, and we continue to strengthen and enhance them at every juncture. The staff at the Research and Technology Park led by Executive Director Peter Chapman have been equally aggressive in their efforts to attract technology-based entrepreneurs and investors to the territory,” Bryan said in his speech. “Their efforts have produced record-setting business development outcomes resulting in 22 new companies activated. This is double the organization’s previous single-year business attraction record of 11 new companies from 2017.”
Cybersecurity, data collection, retention of data and digitizing vulnerable archives are areas of concern that have not been adequately addressed. In 2019, the FBI issued a warning about increasing — and highly sophisticated — ransomware attacks that affected major jurisdictions in the nation. The Virgin Islands Police Department and WAPA both suffered from devastating cyberattacks. Standariizng cybersecurity training for all government employees and requering employee emails to use 2-step verification can prevent a number of malicious attacks from succeeding by giving workers more control over who accesses their accounts remotely.
Ensuring that documents and sensitive archives at the territory’s libraries are digitally preserved before another storm or a devastating fire destroys them also pushes the Virgin Islands into the 21st century.
Education made up a large portion of Bryan’s State of the Territory Address. For this reason, it may actually need to be covered in a separate article to fully outline milestones, setbacks, and upgrades and renovations planned for the future.
“The hurricanes of 2017 destroyed Julius E. Sprauve School on St. John, Arthur A. Richards Junior High School on St. Croix, as well as the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School and the Curriculum Center right here on St. Thomas,” Bryan said. “Every other educational facility sustained some form of damage, and several campuses contained buildings that were so severely damaged that they needed to be shuttered.”
Bryan’s Monday address focused heavily on bringing hurricane-damaged schools back up to speed and creating normalcy for students, teachers, and administrators to learn and teach effectively. In his hour-long address, the infrastructure of schools was emphasized more than improvements to the current curriculum. The executive branch also did not hone in on current laws that require specific courses, to be taught in public schools but lack the budget to be integrated into the public school system.
Healthcare and Mental Health
Healthcare and mental health, although different are lumped together in this analysis because many of the problems plaguing both programs have some overlap.
“Thanks to the collaborative efforts of my office, the Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett and United States Senators Mike Crapo, Joe Manchin and Lisa Murkowski, we were successful in averting the Medicaid Fiscal Cliff for us and our sister territories in the Union,” Bryan said in his address. “Just weeks into our Administration, I issued an Executive Order declaring a mental health emergency in our community from the lingering effects of the 2017 hurricanes and the scarcity of behavioral health resources.”
In 2019, elected officials representing the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation to avert a Medicaid Cliff that could affect thousands of Americans living in U.S. territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The deal was ultimately agreed upon before Christmas.
“Earlier today, we submitted for the consideration of this body, The Virgin Islands Mental Health, and Disabilities Act. It is the first comprehensive bill that addresses behavioral health challenges and mental health disorders experienced by people in our community,” Bryan said. “Thank you, Judge Willocks, Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion and your team for partnering with us to address the crisis of mental health in the territory. But as we address this crisis, we must also confront the very real nexus between mental health and homelessness. As of January 2018, there were almost 500 people in the Virgin Islands experiencing homelessness on any given day.”
Since taking office, the Bryan-Roach administration launched a number of mental health initiatives and reopened and renovated mental health facilities throughout the territory. This past year, the administration began placing the homeless living on the streets into care facilities and completed the purchase of Villa Morales on St. Croix to house homeless in need.
Without transportation, a modern Virgin Islands economy would not exist. While Governor Bryan touched on potholes and crumbling roads, those aren’t the only things hampering the territory’s transportation infrastructure.
In a 2019 State of Banking report held by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, Banco Popular and representatives from the Bank of St. Croix said that Virgin Islanders and the broader Caribbean are transient consumers, traveling from island to island and often to the mainland United States and neighboring Caribbean islands to visit family or conduct business regularly.
To put it into perspective, each car or vehicle traversing the Virgin Islands contributes to the economy in some way. Trucks hauling trash, produce, gasoline or building supplies. Ordinary residents traveling to dump their trash, purchase merchandise, close a deal, clock into work or to meet with a potential client.
When modes of transportation are hampered, excessively complicated or inefficient, precious time and dollars are lost in transit — quite literally. “In this current fiscal year, the Port Authority intends to make an investment of $35 million in the Cyril E. King Airport to include a new transportation center and another $20 million at the Henry E. Rohlsen Airport, which will include expansion of the terminal and development of an air cargo facility,” Bryan said in his speech. “In the marine division for Fiscal Year 2020, the Port Authority intends to invest over $110 million in infrastructure projects. This includes $24 million on the marine facilities on St. Thomas and St. John. The new Customs Building at the Red Hook Ferry Terminal is one of those projects.”
Virgin Islanders have called for solutions like Uber and Lyft and some residents have acknowledged that there are homegrown engineers living at home and abroad are capable of building these same services. To expand on transportation, laws put in place that only allows the Taxi Association and VITRAN to transport land-based passengers would have to be amended — gypsy taxis are still illegal today.
Accelerator programs like those managed by UVI’s Research and Technology Park could expand on transportation innovation. More accessible public transportation has also been proven to cut down on traffic and congestion.
“I have urged the members of my Administration to pursue the use of technology in the management of their agencies, and they have responded positively. VITRAN successfully implemented the first phase of the new Route Match software on St. Croix this fall, with VITRAN Plus riders being the first to experience the automated dispatching and scheduling system,” Bryan said. “Buses are now equipped with tablets for automated vehicle location and real-time communication with drivers. Route Match will be implemented on St. Thomas and St. John in the upcoming months.”
VITRAN recently unveiled several new busses on St. Thomas. With each island receiving upgrades to public transit that could bolster the economy, standard things like transit stations, bus stops with shelters to protect from rain and harsh sunlight remain largely out of reach. Transit stations currently don’t exist in the territory but can cut down on wear and tear to VITRAN’s fleet and could reduce fatigue of bus drivers. Shorter routes would also allow busses to arrive on time.
One concept for upgrades at King airport on St. Thomas included a ferry terminal that also doubled as a transit station. St. Johnians and Crucians remain largely disconnected, needing to travel to St. Thomas to visit family and do business on both islands. Modern transit stations around the globe connect vehicular, ferry, airline and other modes of transport for a seamless traveling experience — for large events like Carnival and Festival events, this could be a game-changer.
(Analysis available on Thursday)
Waste Management and the Environment
Governor Bryan lightly touched on waste management in the Virgin Islands and climate change, mentioning both landfills that are set to close on St. Thomas and St. Croix. He remained tight-lipped on what specifically his administration would be working on to combat the broader waste issue gripping the territory.
“When corals die, not only do we lose the beautiful underwater scenery our tourism-based economy relies upon, we also lose the structures that create habitats for reef fishes,” the Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VI-EPSCoR) said in 2019 report detailing coral bleaching. “The coral species most affected by bleaching are the major reef-building corals.” VI-EPSCoR is a core part of the University of the Virgin Islands and coordinates a number of critical initiatives in the territory surrounding climate change and environmental protection.
His speech did not touch on the environment, as coral bleaching and sediment runoff have continued to damage wildlife in surrounding waters and further threatens the territory’s tourism product. The Trump administration has also discounted evidence of climate change, rolling back critical environmental policies and initiatives just before the refinery on St. Croix was reopened with more relaxed environmental regulations on the federal level.
To combat more relaxed environmental regulation by the federal government, the local government would need to adopt its own policies to preserve its budding tourism product. “The U.S. Virgin Islands has the opportunity to become a model for sustainability, if we have the will. The alternative is unthinkable,” VI-EPSCoR added.
Bryan reported that tourism in the territory is rebounding despite major hotels still closed for post-storm renovations. “While we work to restore our inventory of traditional hotel rooms, the shared economy has filled the void. There are now approximately 2,100 Airbnb rooms being advertised for rent in the Virgin Islands,” Bryan said in his address. “This is in addition to the nearly 900 villas that are also available for vacation rentals.”
His speech also touted accomplishments and outlined setbacks by the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency as the territory continues to improve on its emergy response procedures. “Our geographical location and the challenges inherent with the effects of global climate change require us to be nothing less than excellent at disaster preparedness and response,” Bryan said. “Therefore, we have set a goal of having VITEMA earn certification by the Emergency Management Accreditation Program. In doing so, we will join dozens of other states and many cities that have attained the highest standard in the field of emergency management.”
While the closure of the landfill may be a step in the right direction, it still does not solve the long-standing issues plaguing the Virgin Islands — in St. Thomas alone, residents who don’t have the luxury of trash collection must drive miles away to dump their trash. Residents without cars must also travel the same distance or simply toss it over a hillside as trash collection sites around the territory have slowly disappeared in the last decade.
Energy stability and the operations surrounding WAPA were heavily covered in 2019. Virgin Islanders pay one of the highest rates in the United States and also pay one of the highest rates in the region. The territory also has one of the most unreliable power distributions systems in the United States with outages affecting the entire territory almost monthly even before hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed critical infrastructure in 2017.
WAPA is slated to receive over $2 billion in funding to renew its generation and power distribution systems. One billion dollars of this funding will provide underground circuits for over 50 percent of WAPA customers.
“These grants will now enable WAPA to build its own solar and wind generation systems, along with battery storage for the island of St. Croix. On St. Thomas, a private partner is positioned to rebuild the Donoe Solar Farm, and an Emergency Generation-Hazard Mitigation Project for St. John is underway that will outfit St. John with two standby 4-megawatt generating units and up to 2 megawatts of battery storage,” Bryan noted in his address. “The transformation of WAPA is underway. We thank the Virgin Islands Public Services Commission for the recent decision to afford the Authority the requested base rate adjustment. While the adjustment will not increase the kilowatt-per-hour cost for customers, nothing about the rate adjustment request and process has been easy.”
State of the Territory News also learned in 2019 that the Bryan-Roach administration is exploring plans to develop another solar farm adjacent to Cost-U-Less on St. Thomas, just above the Humane Society — the information has not yet been made public. Bryan said his administration will “commit to hiring a project monitor in the Office of Disaster Recover with the requisite experience to keep WAPA honest and on track with their commitment to the people.”
At a forum held by the Economic Development Authority in 2019 on St. Croix, Bryan noted that the “Virgin Islands had managed its own water supply for decades,” referring to each home having its own cistern. In his speech to a room filled with investors, he said he imagined residents managing their own power supply with the expansion of solar energy and innovations in battery tech — however, he did not expand on this vision in his State of the Territory Address.
Reaching Across the Aisle
(Analysis available on Thursday)