Partnerships between the Virgin Islands Government and federal agencies have strengthened significantly over the last year, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp reported this week during a visit to Washington D.C.
Mapp made the comments Monday at the yearly meeting of the Interagency Group on Insular Areas (IGIA,) whose purpose is to connect heads of government from the U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands with federal representatives to discuss policy issues.
During the meeting, Mapp said his administration will continue to work towards improving the V.I. Government’s relationships with federal agencies.
“When I came into office there was just a complete disjointed connection between the Government of the Virgin Islands and many of our federal agencies and partnerships,” Mapp said.
“Much of our federal funding was in jeopardy, particularly through the Environmental Protection Agency. The [EPA] inspector general wrote a number of reports putting many of our grant programs in jeopardy, and in some instances recommending that the federal government close those programs and administer them themselves.”
Strong collaboration between V.I. Department of Planning and Natural Resources Commissioner Dawn Henry and EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck has saved many of the programs that a year ago appeared to be in danger, Mapp said.
In one instance, DPNR, which in April 2015 was designated by the EPA as a “high-risk grantee,” has even been able to find increased federal funding for an environmental program.
To strengthen ties between the local government and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mapp said he recently nominated federal official Michelle Davis, who has served as health administrator for the New York Regional Office of the HSS, to the position of V.I. Commissioner of Health.
Among the things Mapp says he has tasked Davis with focusing on are the territory’s response to the Zika virus, and improving its mental health and child health services.
Partnerships between the V.I Department of Justice and its federal counterpart have also increased, Mapp said.
“A year ago we had no local police officers embedded with federal law enforcement operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” he said. “A year ago, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was not even present in the Virgin Islands.”
Today slightly less than10 percent of V.I. police officers are embedded in federal law enforcement operations in the territory and the ATF has a renewed presence, Mapp said.
One agency Mapp said the V.I. Government needs an improved relationship with is the Office of Customs and Border Protection under the Department of Homeland Security. CBP continues to use customs duties collected in the Virgin Islands to fund its federal activities, rather than turn that money over to the local treasury as stipulated by the 1954 Revised Organic Act.
A memorandum of understanding signed between the V.I. Government and CBP should have resolved the issue back in 2014, Mapp said, but the V.I. government loses about $14 million per year under its current arrangement.
“Post 9/11, with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the cost of the operations of that department is now being taken from the revenues that are assessed and collected in the V.I.” said Mapp.
“We have no control over who is hired, what the cost and expenses are, but each year we simply get an invoice telling us that the amounts of moneys collected are in fact used for expenses,” he said.
Mapp’s mostly rosy picture of the relationship between the V.I. Government and the federal government led one agency representative at Monday’s meeting to quip that Mapp was the odd man out in a lineup of territorial governors who all appeared to be more glum about their relationships with Washington.
Mapp responded that while some things are “still not working” between the V.I. and the federal government, he felt it important to present the case that local agencies are capable of holding to their responsibilities.
“In my administration – we’ve looked back over the years and [the Virgin Islands] has had a number of issues with the federal government – what we’ve made a conscious decision to do is to first embrace our responsibility.”
The substantive disagreements on policy will need to be addressed after the V.I. government proves it can build a better working relationship with federal partners, Mapp said.
V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett also attended Monday’s meeting, which included representatives from the U.S. Departments of Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security, the Small Business Administration, and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.
Esther Kia’aina, assistant secretary of the Interior for Insular Areas, moderated the discussion portion of the meeting. The meeting was co-hosted by White House Intergovernmental Affairs Director Jerry Abramson and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.