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Friday, June 21, 2024
HomeNewsArchivesGovernor Holds Wide-Ranging Discussion at Chamber Breakfast

Governor Holds Wide-Ranging Discussion at Chamber Breakfast

Gov. deJongh said an Electric Board would hopefully be created within the next month or so.Business owners at a St. Croix Chamber of Commerce breakfast with Gov. John deJongh Jr. Wednesday said they want more enforcement of licensing rules to keep out unlicensed contractors and ensure quality of work and fair competition.
For more than half an hour Wednesday morning, deJongh gave a wide-ranging, detail-filled talk to Chamber members on the state of business in the territory, highlighting his administration’s programs and successes, while acknowledging the poor economy is hurting government revenues. After the talk, which echoed many of the points in deJongh’s recent State of the Territory address, several chamber members asked questions touching on contractor licensing.
"We are in competition with three to four hundred unlicensed electricians," said Carl Johnson of Johnson Electric. "Plus there are many others who do work which the licensed ones sign off on, eroding competition and quality."
Johnson said the only solution is to reestablish the Electric Board, a body which formerly enforced electrical contractor licensing, but which he said has not been active for several years.
"I recognized the problem you face, and quite frankly, some of them are government employees," deJongh said. He said he was putting restrictions on government workers working on private contracts, particularly when it is in the same field as their government job. As for the Electric Board, deJongh said he has spoken with six people who have agreed to serve on it, but their nominations are being held up waiting for them to submit their paperwork. "Hopefully that board will be settled within the next month," he said.
One businesswoman said poor performance of electrical work can cost business owners twice or three times: first, paying for substandard work, then paying government fines, and finally paying to have the work done over. She wanted to know if fines could be imposed upon the people who were supposed to do the work rather than the business owners who paid for shoddy work.
Commissioner of Licensing and Consumer Affairs Wayne Biggs has been focusing on enforcement and on the appeals process since coming on to the job, deJongh said.
"When they do the assessments, they can and in many cases have assessed the people who did the work," deJongh said. "But if anyone has a specific case they are concerned about, please let me know and I will pass it along."
Chamber Director Michael Dembeck later asked if customs duties on goods coming into the territory could be eliminated. "Customs duties are 6 percent off the top that does not go back into the economy," he said.
DeJongh agreed customs duties were a loss for the territory.
"I have discussed this with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano," he said. "It is a discussion we have started."
Another Chamber member asked deJongh what he planned to do to address the territory’s expanding problem of students dropping out of high school.
"We are addressing it in a number of ways," deJongh said. "In fact, next week the Department of Education is having a policy workshop specifically on dropouts."
Parent University, a new program of free seminars helping parents help their children along their educational path, has been a popular success and holds promise for the future, he said.
Students dropping out and failing to thrive or stay engaged was a problem affecting not just those individuals, but all of the territory, he said, pointing to today’s crime problems as a symptom of yesterday’s educational problems. So his administration is pushing school readiness, early childhood education, higher standards and more assistance for day care centers, among other fronts of attack.
Technical education and alternative routes to success need expansion, too, he said. "We are looking at taking technical programs all the way down to middle school."
Jobs for America’s Graduates, a small summer employment program in the Department of Labor is working with high school students who are having trouble in school, he said. So far, there are 25 students in the program, and in the summer it will be expanded, alongside the government’s regular summer employment programs, he said. Partnering with businesses and nonprofits, the program encourages hiring of even unskilled young workers "to help them get back on track," he said.
Sports programs and recreational facilities need expansion, too, he said, noting work his administration has done revitalizing parks and starting renovations on baseball stadiums in both districts.
Along with listing his administration’s accomplishments and giving Chamber members a chance to ask questions, deJongh gave a hard-eyed overview of the territory’s economic and financial position.
With 5.7 percent growth in GDP [gross domestic product] during the last fiscal quarter for 2009, the highest in years, "there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we are not there yet,” deJongh said.
An ongoing recession and a territorial budget deficit of $280 million mean fiscal restraint is imperative, he said. Last year, the government stabilized its budget with $250 million in bonds secured by future revenues from the Diageo distillery under construction. More borrowing will be needed, he said, to get through to the other side and create real economic growth.
“The only way that we will get past this fiscal year is by accessing the credit markets and by borrowing," he said. "It is the only way that we will survive.”
He will be speaking with Senate President Louis Hill shortly about a new bond package, he said.
Federal stimulus-funded projects and other federal grant awards will be critical to keeping the economy going and keeping government employees from being laid off, he said.
“While the insular areas are slower to receive federal funding dollars, the territory expects to receive $56 million in State Fiscal Stabilization Funds," he said. They will go mostly to the Department of Education, the University of the Virgin Islands and to stabilize the government’s annual budget, he said.

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