Nov. 30, 2007 — Over the years, several government entities — from the Public Services Commission to the Waste Management Authority– have continued to "function on their own," concentrating more on personal interests than looking out for V.I. taxpayers, Gov. John deJongh Jr. said Friday.
During a press conference held at Government House, deJongh spoke candidly about several of the agencies' problems, discussing issues that he said are now "bearing the full poisonous fruit of neglect." Starting off with the environmental and waste water user fees being considered by the WMA, deJongh also delved deeper into community concerns, which ranged from high utility rates to the possible cessation of franchise ferry boat service between St. Thomas and St. John.
The governor also touched briefly on allegations of government corruption, illustrated in recent weeks by indictments of a number of former government officials. A "sad drum," he said, keeps beating on, as local and federal audits are being conducted on various government departments and agencies, including St. Thomas' Schneider Regional Medical Center.
"Just over the past week, we have learned of the hospitals efforts to quash a subpoena for records issued after they refused to give the requested records over to the local and federal inspectors general," deJongh explained. "I do not know the truth of what is involved there, and neither I nor others should make premature judgments about what may have transpired, but let me just say that public agencies are not privately held companies, and they owe their existence to the public, and the public interest, and accountability and transparency must become the rule."
The combined force of these problems has caused a loss of transparency and accountability in government, the governor added, and now needs to be tempered. DeJongh said one of the solutions is getting the semi-autonomous agencies to begin dialogues with one another, working collaboratively and in the community's best interest. Meanwhile, he and Lt. Gov. Gregory R. Francis will continue to be "open and honest" about some of the situations the territory's facing, deJongh said, and will not condone corruption on any level.
"Whatever went on in the past is going to be fixed, and it won't be easy and it wont be fast, but we are going to have transparency in this government from the bottom to the top," deJongh said.
Waste Management Authority
While the much-discussed environmental and waste water user fee proposal only got a partial thumbs up this week from the PSC, deJongh made it clear on Friday that he could not support the extra fees, which would be leveraged on just about everything imported into the territory (See "PSC Sends Waste Management Back to Drawing Board").
Though it is time for WMA to meet its mandate and work toward weaning itself away from the General Fund, he said, there could be a way to do it that won't put such an extra financial burden on taxpayers.
"The WMA, which hired consultants, developed the proposal that has been the subject of the recent hearings and concerns," deJongh explained. "They seem to have not truly understood the impact on our economy that their proposals would have. They proposed to tax all goods as they come into the territory on the likely mistaken view that these goods will, sooner or later, enter the waste stream, at which point the handling or disposal of the waste would have to be paid for," deJongh said.
"Well, let me jump to the conclusion: This scheme will not happen while I am governor."
The authority as it was originally envisioned is not working, he said, adding that he has already asked his staff to conduct a review "of the situation," which will be made available to the public.
Public Services Commission and WAPA
When speaking about the PSC's role in determining whether or not to grant WMA's fee proposal, deJongh said, "There is, however, another reason why I want the Waste Management Authority fees not to be considered by the PSC at this time, and that is that I have lost confidence in the PSC in its present form and make-up to handle these matters, or indeed many other matters of considerable importance to us all, in a timely, professional and competent manner. I do not wish to rehash the record of the PSC with respect to the telephone company over the past years, but the record does not give one comfort."
The PSC has also failed to deal with petitions from the V.I. Water and Power Authority in a timely manner, resulting in higher water and electric rates, the governor added. He said the two entities should not keep moving ahead with an adversarial relationship, but rather work together to keep costs down, increase efficiency and encourage conservation.
This week, the PSC approved a 22 percent increase in the fuel price surcharge on residents' electric bills (See "PSC Approves Major Hike in Fuel Surcharge").
In terms of dealing with the government's $18 million WAPA bill, deJongh said he anticipates making a $2 million payment to the authority within the next two weeks. Meanwhile, government departments and agencies have begun the process of reconciling their outstanding utility bills, he said, adding that WAPA and the PSC should work closely to determine what the authority's challenges and needs really are.
DeJongh also said he spent time with U.S. Energy Office officials during his recent trip to Washington, D.C., discussing the connection of power grids between St. Thomas and St. Croix, along with the need for increased access to federal dollars for an energy conservation plan.
Ferry Companies and Pending Legislation
Bold headlines over the past few weeks reported a battle between the St. Thomas-St. John district's two franchise ferry boat companies and the government over the need for money to subsidize the cost of running the route between the two islands. Letters from the companies' attorney Claudette Ferron said Transportation Services and Varlack Ventures would most likely have to drastically cut back their services if the government, as it is required to do by law, didn't provide the funds needed to cover operations.
While deJongh did cut out sections of the fiscal year 2007 budget that would have provided $1 million worth of subsidies to the companies, he said Friday he is working with the Office of Management and Budget to come up with the money. In a recent letter to Senate President Usie R. Richards, deJongh said that his commitment to fund the ferries hinges on their providing continuous financial information and management support, however.
The governor reiterated these statements during the press conference, but made clear that the ferries' franchises will be canceled should they interrupt service between the two islands.
"Where the truth is will have to be determined, but they should all understand one thing, and understand one thing clearly: Any interruption of ferry service to St. John will have a devastating effect on the economy of the island and the livelihoods of hundreds if not thousands on both St. John and St. Thomas," de Jongh said. "Such an interruption of service will not happen and if it does the franchises will be canceled and made available to those who can and will provide timely, safe, affordable service in compliance with their agreements with the government, which agreements must be kept up to date with the present levels of demand and market realities."
Shifting gears, deJongh also talked about the need for senators to take quick action on a multi-rate property tax proposal he recently submitted to the Legislature. The governor said he has also b
een working to repair the territory's relationship with the U.S. Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service and is awaiting the U.S. Senate's passage of a bill that would prevent local residents making more than $75,000 a year from being audited by the IRS beyond the usual three-year statute of limitations (See "DeJongh Appeals to U.S. Senate on IRS Bill").
In explaining his reasons for calling the press conference, deJongh said, "Over the course of this year it has become clear we have very real and deep problems on many fronts." But he said, going into the holiday season he didn't want people to worry unnecessarily about things that weren't going to happen — referring, perhaps, to the controversial environmental user fees.
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