Dec. 18, 2003 – If the purpose of a town meeting is to encourage lively public debate allowing citizens to raise their concerns and questions in a forum where their voices will be heard and their issues considered, then Delegate Donna M. Christensen could probably relax in the knowledge of a job well done Thursday night.
Probably, that is, if she didn't have so much work still ahead of her.
The night's town meeting took place at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel on St. Thomas. It was the second of three in the territory called by Christensen to encourage public discussion of her bill before Congress to establish a chief financial officer for the Virgin Islands who would replace the director of the Office of Management and Budget for five years. The measure also would set up a permanent, comprehensive financial management system for the territory.
Christensen called the bill her "best solution" to the territory's fiscal crisis, which was expected to include a $150 million deficit for fiscal year 2003.
After speaking briefly to the 20 or so people who turned out, Christensen opened the meeting to questions and comments, with each speaker allowed five minutes.
In her opening remarks, she expressed disappointment at the 25th Legislature's adoption of a resolution on Wednesday condemning her efforts. Admitting that she has "exhibited independence during my seven-year tenure in Congress," she added that her actions have always been "on behalf of the people of the Virgin Islands."
Noting that some senators had raised the specter of "pre-colonial" days in their criticism, she said: "Pre-colonial days will look like a paradise compared to the bitter pill the territory will have to swallow if the federal government has to bail us out."
Broad details remain to be worked out, Christensen said repeatedly of her bill, stressing her openness to alternative ways for the territory to achieve financial solvency. The only thing certain, she said, is that "if left to its current course, the government is headed for financial collapse."
She said she has spent long hours doing and redoing the calculations, and the math works out the same every time: A government that borrows money to cover its debts, as the Virgin Islands has been doing in recent years, will soon find out that there's no more money left. And the result, she said, will be the same for the territory as it has been for mainland jurisdictions: shrinking funding for basic services such as education, police and fire services and social programs upon which many citizens depend for their survival.
Disagreement with the delegate's plan came from several voices with a common theme: A CFO is a step backward for a small island community that has fought so hard and so long for self-governance.
Eva Richardson said that while she is"concerned about the problems here," she is equally concerned that the delegate's answer "is regressive and will nullify the power of democratically elected officials to address these problems."
Gaylord Sprauve, saying he is disillusioned by what is happening in the territory, commended Christensen for her courage in seeking a solution but said her bill "does not address the root causes of the problems in the territory. It's like a Band-Aid, and it will do nothing."
Christensen agreed that a CFO will not single-handedly impose the"deep-seated changes that have to take place." But, she added, "We can't make one single step forward with our financial situation being the wreck that it is."
There also was no shortage of support for her plan.
Jason Budsan praised the idea of a government official charged with fiscal responsibility and budgetary accountability. "Why are all of our revenues being pledged to supporting bond issues?" he asked, noting the Public Finance Authority's announcement Wednesday of the successful sale of $268 million in bonds. "Why are we borrowing again and increasing our long-term debt instead of dealing with what we have to do today?"
Sen. Usie Richards, one of two senators who voted against the resolution condemning Christensen's action (Celestino A. White Sr. was the other), attended the meeting. He said the Legislature is short on members willing to make the difficult financial decisions needed. But he also criticized Christensen's approach and timing, saying she should have offered to sit down with the senators to work on fixing the territory's financial wounds before taking the matter to Washington. "It's like a slap in the face," he said.
Several persons expressed concerns about language in the legislation. Christensen admitted that it is oblique on several points, including one reference to the governor having authority to"remove the CFO for cause."
"What cause?" Richardson wanted to know. "If the governor doesn't like him, he can just fire him?"
Christensen said the CFO could be removed only for "legally sufficient reason." And that, she said, "goes to the heart of what I am trying to do. This is a small, close-knit community, and it is difficult in such a community to remove the political process from decisions that are strictly financial in nature. I believe what we need is somebody outside the political structure, hopefully from the territory, to help make the hard decisions and help get this government back on the road to financial solvency."
Attentive to critics and supporters alike, she more than once nodded in silent assent to suggestions by vociferous opponents of her bill. She held to her position that it's the best hope the territory has of keeping the federal government away from its checkbook, but without overstating her hopes for its long-term impact. "It's a start," she said.
Vincent Rivera, who has spent much of his career working in the computer business, may have personified the spirit of the town meeting best. After registering his disagreement with her plan, he commented: "Thank you, Delegate Christensen, for doing what you're doing. You keep waking the people up! Let them smell the coffee!"
Thirty-some people showed up for the first of the three town meetings, held Wednesday night on St. Croix, and most were behind Christensen's efforts.
The third meeting is set for 10 a.m. Saturday on St. John, in the Legislature Building in Cruz Bay.
The delegate's bill in its entirety can be accessed online at the federal government's Thomas legislation-tracking Web site. Print copies are available at her offices and at the public libraries on St. Croix and St. Thomas.
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