Private-sector development, which has stagnated for 10 years, will be the key to turning the Virgin Islands economy around, according to John P. de Jongh Jr., chairman of the Governor's Fiscal Recovery Task Force.
De Jongh told the monthly meeting of the League of Women Voters on Monday that he would not support a federal control board, but rather sees privatization as the major key to solving the government's ongoing deficit problems. The Water and Power Authority, Vitran, the motor pool and solid waste are a few of the areas ripe for privatization, he said.
He also said the government needs to stop subsidizing revenue-generating government agencies.
"Since 1994 general fund revenues have not covered general fund expenditures," deJongh said. In fact the general fund covers only about 67 percent to 70 percent of the expenses month to month.
The 1998 working deficit is $115 million and if things continue at the current rate will reach $216 million for fiscal year 1999.
For comparison de Jongh said that when the city of Miami had a $65 million deficit, there was virtual chaos.
"The government can't afford to think within a one-year plan," de Jongh said.
Philadelphia, where de Jongh worked on strategic planning, and Washington are two cities that he said have benefited from a five-year plan.
When Philadelphia was facing a payless payday, city officials agressively put a privatization plan into place.
The five-year V.I. plan is being designed to have built-in accountability, he said. It will also have an implementation plan — the most important part, according to de Jongh.
De Jongh said he would also favor a real merit system in government.
But it will take the consensus of all the stakeholders to make anything happen.
That is why this task force includes members of all the segments of the community: the executive branch of government, the Legislature, the private sector and labor.
He also pointed out that every year 1,200 students graduate from local high schools. But there are only 400-500 private-sector jobs — with no growth.
Retired educator and League member Ruth Thomas said it was time for people to hear the message that government can't continue to be everybody's mother and father. "They have to be weaned," she said.
Thomas said her generation knew they would have to go away after high school, and people never expected to have the government be their employer.
De Jongh said people here would not be hurt by privatization.
He also said he did not favor tax increases or the proposed cruise-ship head tax.
"It is an expenditure-driven problem," he said. "I don't believe we should raise taxes without reducing expenditures."
The task force is not designed to take care of the government's debt — only to balance revenues and expenditures. De Jongh said a very important part of that will be the forgiveness of the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster loans from Marilyn and Bertha.
However, de Jongh said, "Pure debt is not something that hurts us. We need to get the general fund in balance by growing the private sector."