St. Thomas — On Monday, Governor Bryan delivered his first State of the Territory Address at the Capitol Building in Charlotte Amalie. 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.
Here, the governor delivers his address to the territory, with updates on capital projects, fiscal proposals, economic strengths/weaknesses, and partnerships with other elected officials. Bryan’s first address was heavy, but managed to gain praise from senators who viewed it as “refreshing and collaborative” the St. Croix Source reports.
“I found that refreshing, and I appreciate that he saw the correlation between things like poverty and crime,” Sen. Alicia Barnes said following the hour-long address. “What I also liked is that the governor followed his statements up with not only short-term measures, but long-term plans that ultimately all lead us on a path forward.”
Here are a few standout moments in Governor Bryan’s first State of the Territory Address:
In his speech, the newly elected governor tackled the crime rate in the territory, stating that “We have lost five Virgin Islanders to senseless violence this month. That is unacceptable. And what is more unnerving, is this has occurred in January four times in the last five years.” Bryan added, “I am committed to doing what we must to ensure that next January we have none.”
In his biggest public address to the territory since taking office, Governor Bryan said “reducing crime in our community is more than a matter of law enforcement or executive action. It is about building up our young people and creating disincentives to the perpetual cycle of criminal activity. It is about building communities and making a commitment to supporting targeted prevention and behavioral support programs.”
The governor focused heavily on the socioeconomic status of the Virgin Islands and the effects it has had on the territory’s tourism product. Bryan’s call for the territory to “declare war on poverty,” is something worth watching closely.
Governor Bryan also mentioned that his administration will be sending a bill to the 33rd Legislature for consideration that would free the role of Attorney General from partisan politics and allow for more independent investigations in the territory.
“No longer will the Attorney General be beholden to the politics of any particular administration, rather the Attorney General will serve in the best interest of the people and this Territory, regardless of who is sitting in Government House,” Governor Bryan said in his address.
This announcement is a significant piece of legislation that could allow the Department of Justice to further press into issues of government corruption and strips future governor’s of protection even after appointing an attorney general to their cabinet.
Analyzing Key Parts of Government
“We have been analyzing the critical areas in our government which need improvement, as well as those areas that are working well and need to be expanded upon,” Bryan said in his speech. To what extent the governor’s administration has analyzed various government departments is unknown, but Governor Bryan has shown an interest in assessing departments before any restructuring begins.
“Tonight, as I begin now my fourth week in office, I must report that the state of our territory is distressed,” Bryan said.
The Governor Took a Swipe at President Trump
Distancing himself from former Governor Mapp’s stance on issues involving President Trump was perhaps the most shocking moment in Governor Albert Bryan’s first State of the Territory Address.
Bryan now joins Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, the delegate representing the U.S. Virgin Islands in Washington D.C. in opposing any attempt by the Trump administration to divert disaster funds in U.S. territories and states to his border wall.
“In the course of the recent federal shutdown, however, there were assertions by the President of the United States that he might declare a National Emergency and use unapplied Disaster Recovery Funds for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and several states to pay for the construction of a southern border wall.”
This is one of the few instances in modern Virgin Islands history where elected officials have pushed back on foreign policy that could harm the territory’s interests. Governor Bryan’s speech was calculated, avoiding to mention the President by name and referred to the Mexican border as the southern border.
Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett recently sent a charged letter to President Trump earlier this month requesting that the White House resist considering any move to divert disaster funds to fund the wall.
The Bryan administration seems keen to use Twitter — President Trump’s favorite social network — to catapult the Virgin Islands onto the world stage when necessary. Keep an eye out for developments.
Among other things, Governor Bryan addressed the territory’s worsening waste management strategy. When heavy rains arrive in the territory, DPNR regularly alerts the public of unsanitary beach conditions, something that is in stark contrast with the Department of Tourism’s marketing campaign that spotlights beautiful blue waters on each island.
In August, the St. Thomas Source reported that the Virgin Islands Government was under nine consent decree cases, some of them dating back to the 1980s. Since then, a federal judge lifted a consent decree that required specific guidelines to be met by the VIPD after nine costly years.
Both landfills have been mandated to close since early 2000 and pose a significant environmental risk to wildlife and residents living in the surrounding area. At the Bovoni Landfill on St. Thomas, federal authorities filed a 34-page complaint in May, outlining that the Virgin Islands was in violation of the Clean Air Act that governs the nation.
The Bovoni Landfill sits adjacent to Mangrove Lagoon, and is the largest mangrove forest in the territory, home to juvenile fish, sea turtles and some bird species. Mangrove Lagoon on St. Thomas has slowly seen its waters polluted as the landfill grows in size. The Nadir Gut, which channels water from Anna’s Retreat, Tutu and Donoe bypass and other areas in country empty into the lagoon, bringing with it more pollutants and man-made debris.
The mangrove is considered an Area of Concern under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The Anguilla Landfill on St. Croix is also mandated to close as scavenging birds migrating annually create hazards for nearby aircraft at the Henry Rohlsen Airport.
Governor Bryan also mentioned that a better waste management strategy could improve the territory’s tourism product and not to mention the health of residents.
The Governor also talked about the state of roads in the Virgin Islands and mentioned that construction on major roadways will pick up in the coming months.
Roadways have been a major talking point in the previous State of the Territory Addresses, the only difference is available disaster funding for road repairs in 2019, so it’s probably best to move on.
Transportation was not mentioned
After discussing roads, traffic signals and his administration’s intention to create a more diverse and accessible workforce for residents, one key ingredient was missing — transportation.
Maintaining a healthy workforce in the territory without adequate transportation for working, non-driving residents living in remote areas were absent from Governor Bryan’s State of the Territory Address on Monday.
The territory, which receives funding from the Federal Highway administration is allowed to classify waterways connecting all three islands as federal highways. In 2014, Vitran took the necessary steps to connect St. Thomas and St. John with federal funds, purchasing two boats branded with their logo and department colors.
The boats were purchased and franchised in partnership with local ferry companies according to the V.I. Daily News.
Crucians have long complained about the lack of viable transportation options on St. Croix. As it stands, it is cheaper to fly from St. Croix to Florida than it is to make the twenty-minute flight to St. Thomas.
Vitran’s fleet of busses on St. Thomas is also in bad shape, with routes like Bovoni, Bordeaux and Anna’s Retreat only receiving three scheduled trips per day. Safari routes do not provide alternatives to St. Thomians living in the hills or far away from transit routes.
State of the Territory News’ take on public transportation:
“There can be no doubt that the transportation sector is the most critical sector of [the] economy.” – Robert Brady
Growing the Workforce
One of Governor Bryan’s strengths as the former Commissioner of Labor under the DeJohgn administration, could be growing the workforce in the Virgin Islands as he heads into his 5th week on the job.
In Governor Bryan’s address, which was broadcast worldwide and watched by Virgin Islanders living in the U.S., Japan, Canada, federal officials and cruise industry partners, he outlined territory’s way forward — promising a more diverse economy that focused on helping youth gain trades and resources for entrepreneurial ventures.
“For the fiscal year 2019, the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital forecasts it will operate at a monthly cash loss of 1.5 million dollars. The Roy L. Schneider Regional Medical Center also anticipates monthly operating losses of 1.2 million dollars,” Bryan revealed. “These forecasts do not include the over 10 million dollars each hospital owes to WAPA nor the more than 50 million dollar debt amassed by the healthcare facilities before the hurricanes.”
The Governor noted that WAPA was one of the weakest semi-autonomous entities in the territory, with bloating debt and a fragmented grid, WAPA is still recovering from hurricanes Irma and Maria.
Microgrids are the future of energy; the governor also touched on the need for underground grids, and renewable energy using disaster grant funding.
Digitizing the Virgin Islands Government
Governor Bryan also revealed that the most requested change by voters on the campaign trail was to modernize the Government of the Virgin Islands.
“Frankly, the time to digitize our government is now,” he said to applause in the senate chamber.
A few days before election day, we ran a piece detailing how the world was searching for then candidate Albert Bryan far more than Independent incumbent Kenneth Mapp during the General Election in 2018. The data, sourced from Google — the largest search engine in the world — detailed searches for Albert Bryan overtaking Governor Mapp in search volume after each election in 2018.
The world searched the term ‘Albert Bryan’ more times than it looked up former Governor Mapp. Searches spiked after the Primary Election in August, and the trend repeated after the results of the General Election and the subsequent runoff election that elected Albert Bryan.
On the campaign trail, the Bryan-Roach campaign commanded social media, memes, infographics and overall marketing. This is purely an assessment, but as a journalist and tech enthusiast, I was blown away by the Bryan-Roach campaign’s ability to lead public opinion online.
As the Bryan administration weighs plans to digitize the Virgin Islands government, expect their social pages to keep the same energy as they push various initiatives and policy changes in the coming months.
Trackings Grants in real-time
Tracking grants in real-time would be a game-changer in the territory. Not only would residents and non-profits have access to progress and issues with grants, but federal partners, newspapers, and nonprofits operating internationally could track grants and report on how effective they have been since being awarded.
This is a boost for transparency advocates and those worried about government efficiency and fiscal responsibility.
Government House is actively tweeting! In the previous administration, tweets were simply regurgitations of Facebook posts that auto-posted from the Government Facebook page.
The Bryan administration seems to be prepping a more active Twitter presence, a similar move from public officials in other U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam seeking to build a better relationship with the United States.
Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett also has a fairly active Twitter presence when pushing for support in Congress. Read Governor Bryan’s first State of the Territory Address in 16 tweets here.
The Financial Crisis Continues in 2019
The governor also outlined the territory’s vulnerable economy and declining fiscal state. The numbers were worse than many had imagined and painted a far more dire picture for the territory’s economy than previously outlined by former Governor Mapp.
Excerpt from Governor Bryan’s speech:
“A report from the previous administration indicates that for at least the last five years, the Government of the Virgin Islands’ expense obligations has exceeded operating revenues, resulting in annual structural deficits ranging anywhere from 200 to 450 million dollars.Governor Albert Bryan’s first State of the Territory Address — 2019
Adopted budgets were typically balanced with unrealistic revenue forecasts that eventually fell short of those projections without making a corresponding reduction in expenditures.
While our government pretended that budgets were balanced in theory and in budget books, when looking through the lens of generally accepted accounting principles, the structural deficits persisted.
Our government managed these deficits largely by underfunding required pension payments, deferring vendor payments and income tax refunds, and borrowing short-term — further compounding the situation.
The federal recovery dollars have masked the true weakness of our economy.
While the disaster recovery spending will cushion the blow in the near term, if left unattended, the instability of the economy will become increasingly more evident when the recovery efforts subside over the coming years. The window to restart our private-sector economy to avert fiscal collapse is very small, and it is closing rapidly.”
This isn’t to say that former Governor Mapp is to blame for all of the territory’s woes and shortfalls, many of which have existed for decades, but the newly elected governor appears ready to lay the groundwork for a 21st century Virgin Islands.
Although, the current state of the territory is one that paints a dire picture, as the territory searches for new revenue streams. The legalization of medical marijuana has been looked at as a step forward for advocates and mainstream economists but others are not as optimistic about the benefits.
The governor explains that the path to a brighter Virgin Islands is only done together, and has encouraged all Virgin Islanders to join the course. Among other hot topics were GERS, gaps in affordable housing, tourism, and educational reform.
Makiel contributed to this article.