March 11, 2004 – Delegate Donna M. Christensen, the target of bitter attacks by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull for seeking to establish a chief financial officer for the territory, took the high road on Thursday reacting to the governor's announcement the day before of "new financial controls and requirements" on government spending.
Following a three-hour meeting on Wednesday with his cabinet, other agency heads and financial officers, Turnbull announced that the controls would be implemented "effective immediately." To prevent overspending and unauthorized payroll expenditures, a Government House release stated, any agency that exceeds its allotment will be prevented from entering biweekly payroll data into the financial management system.
Christensen commended Turnbull for his efforts to resolve the territorial government's fiscal crisis. "Any effort of the governor and his cabinet to ensure that we don't overspend the resources that we have is commendable," she said.
The delegate's bill before Congress calls for a chief financial officer to have oversight of V.I. government spending for five years and for a permanent integrated financial management system to be implemented. She said on Thursday that the CFO would be an asset that would assist the governor to meet the goal of fiscal responsibility.
According to the Government House release, Turnbull said at the Wednesday meeting: "I believe we have the brainpower and resolve in this room to do what must be done to impose fiscal discipline on ourselves and not have to have anyone from anywhere and any board have to come do it for us."
Parallel to Christensen's proposal for a CFO, Sen. Lorraine Berry has introduced legislation locally to establish a financial review board that would have the power to "disapprove" a mandated five-year financial plan, and thereby require the administration to revise it. (See "Senator now pushing for a fiscal review board".)
Referring to the accountability procedure laid out by the governor, Christensen said: "I think this and the CFO can work hand in hand to ensure that the people's dollars and the federal dollars are spent wisely."
Program funding, vendor payments could be affected
Government House spokesman James O'Bryan, who is also the St. Thomas-Water Island administrator, said on Thursday that the new procedure would apply to the Police Department and Fire Service — two agencies that historically have incurred a lot of overtime — along with other branches of government.
"They would not be able to put any payroll into the system, once the allotment was used up," he said. And for any agency that found itself in that situation, he added, the next step would be to contact the Office of Management and Budget.
The Government House release said Turnbull resolved to impose the fiscal controls "to prevent the all-too-common practice of agencies making excessive overtime payments and spending millions of dollars above their allotment and appropriation levels."
The new procedure also would affect the funding of programs and vendor payments if allotment levels were reached, O'Bryan said.
At the Wednesday meeting, according to the release, Attorney General Iver Stridiron pointed out that the V.I. Code imposes penalties "including suspension, termination, fines and imprisonment on certifying officers who knowingly certify payroll and vendor documents for non-existent funds."
O'Bryan said on Thursday that to his knowledge no one has ever been convicted under that law.
The release also stated that Nathan Simmonds, director of the governor's Office of Fiscal and Economic Recovery Implementation, said on Wednesday that revenues are up for fiscal year 2004 but that strong spending restraints are needed "due to the $152 million projected deficit in 2003 which had to be covered by a non-recurring $100 million loan."
The government secured a short-term bridge loan in that amount last year in anticipation of the $268 million bond issue in December. The loan was earmarked for income tax refunds and vendor payments.
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