Spiking unemployment; chaos and financial collapse of Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital; high-level public corruption; the bleeding of the government pension system; and a sudden, sharp drop in violent crime are among the most important, ongoing stories of the last year.
Chaos at JFL:
No story has more direct impact on the safety and livelihood of more Virgin Islanders than the rapid decline and disintegration of management and any semblance of solvency at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital this year. And it will only increase in urgency over the next year.
St. Croix’s beleaguered hospital began the year with the abrupt resignation of JFL Chief Executive Officer Jeff Nelson in January. (Juan Luis CEO Jeff Nelson Resigns)
The JFL governing board hired Nelson in 2011 based on his experience turning around financially struggling hospitals. Nelson became very unpopular after the hospital laid off 85 licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants, as part of a move toward more highly qualified nursing staff, and was ultimately forced out. His resignation letter says he is resigning "as requested."
But finances worsened and layoffs continued. (Juan Luis Hospital Lays Off 24) And infighting became severe among administration.
Interim CEO Kendall Griffith, a heart surgeon, resigned abruptly in July, and then several V.I. senators publicly intervened, pledging to directly intervene in the hospital’s personnel decisions by legislatively abolishing the hospital’s governing board and reinstate Griffith legislatively. The hearing was canceled after several members of the board resigned and Griffith agreed to resume his role as CEO.
The hospital board continues to be unable to meet or act due to a lack of a quorum, and all board decisions are being addressed at infrequent joint Territorial Hospital Board meetings.
The hospital, which owes millions of dollars to the Water and Power Authority, millions more to the Government Employee Retirement System and cannot pay all of its suppliers, was unable to meet payroll in late November until the V.I. Finance Department, in effect, loaned the hospital the money interest-free by giving it an "advance" on its budgetary allotment. (Juan Luis Hospital Payroll Delayed)
And on Nov. 29, Griffith unilaterally fired JFL Chief Financial Officer Deepak Bansal, the hospital’s entire financial team and others, citing financial necessity. The hospital continues to have no financial team as the new year begins.
And in December, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that effectively decides if the hospital may remain open, paid a surprise visit to investigate a complaint. (CMS Inspects JFL in Surprise Visit)
With lives literally in the balance and even the immediate future far from certain, JFL will be in the headlines many times over the next year.
Life after Hovensa:
The Virgin Islands economy, particularly on St. Croix, was hit like a sledgehammer in 2013 in the wake of the Hovensa refinery’s abrupt 2012 closure. Everything from the government budget for schools to the unemployment rate has been worsened by it. Unemployment and economic activity closely followed projections the V.I. Bureau of Economic Research made at the beginning of the year. (One Year Post-Hovensa: Worse Before It Gets Better?)
Territorial unemployment rates rose throughout 2012, peaking at 13.7 percent in January 2013, and then held steady for much of the year. The numbers were pulled down by conditions on St. Croix, where unemployment peaked at 17.8 percent in January, dropping to a still very high 14.8 percent by August. While the economy and tax revenues are still suffering, the next year will tell if the territory and St. Croix are really starting to turn the corner or not.
The Government Employee Retirement System accelerated its flood of red ink in 2013, putting around 8,500 V.I. retirees at risk of entirely losing their pensions in less than a decade. (GERS to Senate: System Still Going Broke Fast)
A reform plan has been formulated from Government House, but no legislation has yet been proposed. Some GERS members attempted to raise contribution rates in November, but the measure failed. (GERS Comes Up Just Short in Hiking Contribution Rates) Look forward to major developments at GERS, for better or worse, over the next year.
Public corruption showed a particularly ugly face in 2013.
(Special Editorial: Public Corruption Makes Us All Poorer)
In January, Sen. Alvin Williams Jr. pleaded guilty to racketeering, bribery and a host of other offenses. (Former Sen. Alvin Williams Jr.: ‘I Engaged in … Racketeering as a Senator’) Williams is scheduled for sentencing in January.
Even uglier, two long-time territorial law enforcement officers: Department of Planning and Natural Resources Enforcement Director Roberto Tapia and V.I. Police Sgt. Angelo Hill both pleaded guilty to using their badges, guns and law enforcement vehicles to smuggle large volumes of cocaine.
(DPNR Enforcement Director Tapia Pleads Guilty to Cocaine Smuggling)
Multiple others were also charged in the conspiracy and some have pleaded guilty already. (Hector Alcenio Pleads Guilty in Tapia Drug Case) The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency first began investigating Tapia in 1998, according to court documents.
Tapia is to be sentenced Feb. 13 and Hill’s sentencing is scheduled for April 17. But it would be unrealistic to think that Tapia is the last corrupt law enforcement official smuggling cocaine while wearing a badge and a gun.
A St. Thomas Transportation Safety Administration supervisor was arrested in November. (St. Thomas TSA Supervisor Arrested For Drug Trafficking)
While bad news dominated the headlines, there was good news too.
The recession seems to be ending, tourism is increasing, and the V.I. Water and Power Authority began moving toward much cheaper fuel and started major solar energy projects.
Lowest Number of Murders Since 2003:
Perhaps the best news of the year is a sharp year-to-year drop in murders in the territory. At midnight Dec. 31, there had been 34 murders reported by police in the territory for the year, in a territory with roughly 106,000 residents. (Homicides 2013) While still way too high, that is down from 58 in 2012 (Homicide Data 2012) and the lowest murder total since 2003. As 2014 moves along, we will see if that good news continues, or if it was an aberration.
Tune into the Source in 2014 for in-depth, accurate information on all of these stories and more.