I am pleased to have had the opportunity to serve the Virgin Islands community, first as the executive director of the Water and Power Authority and most recently as a professor in the Business Administration Division at the University of the Virgin Islands. For personal reasons, my wife and I have decided to move our permanent residence back to Atlanta, Georgia. Before leaving, though, I feel obligated to share some of the insights I have been privileged to acquire during my stay.
I believe that the experiences afforded me in the two roles in which I have served have given me a unique view into the quality of life as a resident in the Virgin Islands. I would like to make it clear that these views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of either of the institutions with which I have been associated. Also, while my two-year stay in the Virgin Islands may lend some objectivity to my insights, I would not debate the fact that I may lack a complete sense of historical perspective. In any event, here's one guy's view of things.
Since my arrival, I have made two fundamental observations.
One is that the most encouraging thing about the Virgin Islands is its unrealized potential. It is what everybody sees the moment they arrive. If only the government were more fiscally responsible. If only the roads were better paved. If only the streets were better lit. If only crime were reduced. Unfortunately, the most discouraging thing about the Virgin Islands is also its unrealized potential.
The other observation is that the best thing about the Virgin Islands' predicament is that it only takes the collective will of it citizenry to put it on the correct path. It is also true that the worst thing about the Virgin Islands predicament is that it takes the collective will of it citizenry to put it on the correct path, and that will seems to be absent.
Skill development certainly plays an important role in the advancement of our community — better training and employee development. But the fundamental hurdle which must be overcome to address the basic woes of the Virgin Islands is a matter of will, not a matter of skill.
The central governmental issue today appears to be the economic situation in which the government finds itself. On the surface, it would appear that the matter is a simple cash flow issue, which may explain the methods being used to solve it. In my view, this economic situation (which is recurring) is much more complex and has elements of basic economic structure and the remnants of colonialism at its roots.
How and why the Virgin Islands has not reached its full potential has been a subject of great interest to me, and what follows is some of the experiences I have had and conclusions I have reached.
Government as unregulated monopoly
Upon my arrival in May of 2001, I began telling everyone who would listen that the Virgin Islands was in store for some very difficult economic times. That is why, initially, we at WAPA forecast a shortfall in revenue, recovered our unpaid monies from the government, held unfilled positions open, launched a new bond effort and developed our planning accordingly. The idea was to avoid dramatic financial corrections — layoffs, emergency funds requests, etc.
The same advice was given to central government, and was amplified when the V.I. received a tax windfall of nearly $100 million in 2001, advising that some of the money be set aside and the balance go to nonrecurring investments. Unfortunately, we spent more than the windfall amount and we spent it on recurring items — chiefly salary increases. So why are our fiscal problems a surprise, for which we are unprepared? One could see it coming at least two years ahead.
Should all the blame fall on the governor or the Senate or everybody who elected them? I believe the answer is that the socioeconomic system in which we find ourselves has taken on a life and momentum of its own, and none of the stakeholders have the power or will to control it. Let's face it, we do not live in a "free market" or "capitalistic" system in the Virgin Islands as we do in most of the balance of United States. We live in a system where roughly 40 percent of the workers are employed by the government, and about 90 percent of those workers are represented by unions.
This structure does not describe a "free market" system. It is more closely akin to a "socialistic" or "welfare" state. The result is that the workers have the numbers to influence elections, so management responds to their wishes — usually with cash raises.
It is not my intent to make value judgments about forms of economic systems. I only want to point out that the controls that are in place are for a different economic system than the one we seem to have. That is why there is Public Services Commission oversight of most utility companies: Utilities are a monopoly. In my view, the V.I. government is an unregulated monopoly.
Unregulated monopolies have certain unappealing characteristics, but the most import one is that many of the workers care very little about the customer, their individual competency or their overall job performance. In short, they soon develop a very poor work ethic. After all, where else can you go to get governmental services, and who will penalize them for their poor behavior?
Because of the economic dominance of the government, some of this attitude has spilled over into the private sector as well. Recent UVI-commissioned studies of the views of local business as to the quality of the labor force seem to support these conclusions.
Money vs. more lasting job satisfaction
The work ethic issue is not without its own complexities, however. On the face of it, it would appear that the solution is a simple matter of will, and that is, of course, true — except that it not simple. I am told that the work ethic in the Virgin Islands was, at one time, second to none. But the influx of new residents was so overwhelming to the local governmental systems that workers became frustrated and simply did what they could, realizing that their maximum effort could not keep up with the demand.
Some say that several generations of this resignation has lead to the current work ethic and customer service crisis. While this may be true, I believe that it is also true that we have conditioned our workers to respond principally to monetary rewards. We have not learned the benefits that accrue from simply having done a job well.
Money does not provide a sense of long-term satisfaction. The employee stimulus from a monetary reward actually passes pretty quickly — right after the worker has spent it. What is more lasting is the heightened self-esteem from a "job well done." Until we learn that lesson, our workers will never be truly happy, and unhappy workers do not generally give good customer service or demonstrate a good work ethic.
Now for a few words on the hurdles which management (government and private) faces in the socioeconomic system in the Virgin Islands. Because of the union dominance and hence, the political power of the workers, management is largely emasculated. If the workers don't like a management fiscal restraint measure, for example, they demonstrate and ultimately prevail in removing the individual responsible from power, either through election or by pressure on board members or superiors. The result is that managers can't effectively manage, particularly in fiscal matters.
Allowing leaders to make unpopular decisions
It is my view that in the Virgin Islands we have a bit of conundrum. We can exercise our will to do things differently. That is, workers can choose to understand that there must be balance of power between management and the workforce and that management must be trusted in its decisions, even if the decisions are sometimes unpopular.
Imagine how things might have been if we had not supported the office of President of the United States because of differences we had with the men
who held the office. On the flip side, elected and appointed management must be competent, ethical and honest to command the respect and trust of the workers. Other municipalities do it successfully. So can we.
The governor and the Senate have some hard decisions to make. If they are to be truly successful, their near-term decisions are likely to be unpopular. Reducing cellular telephone use, limiting travel or reducing the use of governmental vehicles will not solve the current fiscal crisis. Jobs will have to be cut and, very likely by as much as 25 percent or more. There are simply too many people on the payroll.
That does not mean these folks need to be permanently out of work. If done correctly, these workers can eventually be brought back to work in the private sector, where they belong, via economic development efforts.
It will not be easy. It took us along time to become addicted, and will take some time to break the habit. If we do not break the habit, however, we will be find ourselves selling our most valuable pieces of government (e.g., WAPA, The West Indian Co., the Port Authority, etc.) at a "fire sale." When these entities are owned and operated by folks who do not live in the Virgin Islands, their interest will be purely business.
They will immediately effect the changes that I suggested above that we do ourselves, chief of which will be massive layoffs. They will introduce the profit motive, which we do not currently have in our key agencies. They will also introduce a form of colonialism that we will forever wish we had not allowed to return. And at the end of it all, we will still have to clear the hurdles of our socioeconomic conundrum.
Editor's note: Joseph R. Thomas Jr. served as WAPA executive director for a year in 2001-02 and spent the last year teaching business administration courses at the University of the Virgin Islands. He came to WAPA with 22 years of utilities management experience, having most recently owned his own consulting firm, J.R. Thomas Associates Inc.
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