Feb. 17, 2003 – Delegate Donna M. Christensen and Sens. Lorraine Berry and Emmett Hansen II described and defended their ideas on fiscal accountability for the V.I. government at a forum hosted on Tuesday night by the group Generation Now! in the cafeteria of the University of the Virgin Islands St. Croix campus.
According to Adrienne L. Williams, Generation Now! president, the group has as its mission to improve the quality of life in the Virgin Islands through community service, cultural preservation and "passing on the things we love about our community to future generations."
Christian talked about her proposal before Congress to create a chief financial officer for the territory for five years, and Berry outlined her bill before the 25th Legislature to established a financial advisory board. Hansen told the audience he has fiscal responsibility legislation of his own being drafted in the Senate legal counsel's office that he plans to introduce in the Legislature.
Hansen says the solution to the territory's fiscal accountability crisis lies in the Bureau of Audit and Control, which was established by the Legislature in 1982. He held up stack of reports of audits conducted by the bureau, which he said is the only entity that has the power to "walk into any government department and review their books."
He said the audits have revealed mismanagement, misappropriation and waste in overtime and use of government vehicles. In one agency, he said, without identifying it, an audit found that $578,000 was expended "for questionable and undocumented uses."
"This is our tool to get the situation straight," Hansen said, explaining that his bill would give the V.I. Inspector General's Office the power to prosecute officials or employees accused of mismanaging or misappropriating government funds. He said the inspector general does not now have the mandate or the money to take legal action against persons accused of government waste and mismanagement.
In explaining why she introduced her CFO bill, Christensen said she does not feel the territory is incapable of being fiscally responsible, but "we need to do better." Many other jurisdictions are facing similar fiscal problems, she said, and the Virgin Islands needs to exercise control of its financial situation before a federal takeover occurs.
Christen said she has watched the V.I. government's "fiscal roller coaster" for years, citing repeated borrowing and also the return of unspent federal dollars. She said the CFO would provide a "fail-safe mechanism" to keep track of funds. "The people need the assurance that a plan is in place and that we will stick with it," she said.
Berry said her proposed financial review board represents the "last resort of any political leader." "If we were an independent country, our dollar would be devalued and our credit line revoked," she said.
The board would comprise a cadre of professionals with expertise in finance, Berry said, and it would develop a five-year fiscal austerity plan for the territory. She said she is convinced that no "single leader" will emerge to rally the troops in the direction of fiscal responsibility — and that "if the Legislature cannot do this, we will need to go in the direction of the CFO bill."
Albert Bryan Jr., vice president of Generation Now!, moderated the forum. Referring to Hansen as "the get-tough senator," citing his gun control bill passed in the 24th Legislature, Bryan asked him what tools or powers he wants the Inspector General's Office to have in order to prosecute fiscal offenders.
Hansen said restitution could be ordered, depending on the severity of the offense. All government cashiers can be linked through a computer system to produce daily revenue reports, he said. He also said the V.I. Code specifies that the Bureau of Audit and Control is to coordinate its efforts with those of the U.S. Department of Interior to avoid duplication.
Hansen said he envisions that the fiscal control measures ultimately adopted for the territory will be a "hybrid" of his legislation, Christensen's CFO proposal and Berry's financial review board plan.
Christensen's proposal would establish a chief financial officer for the territory for five years and set up a permanent integrated financial management system for the government.
Bryan asked Berry how long her proposed financial review board would function. She said that once the mechanisms are put in place "then we can go about the government business." But, she added, "if the problems are not solved, we need to keep it in place."
Berry said she has been in touch with Virgin Islanders living in the territory and abroad who "will serve on the board if asked" — and do so for $1 a year if their expenses are covered.
One of the audience members who had questions for the panelists was Pat Oliver, an Education Complex librarian. She said there is a spending control mechanism in place through the Office of Management and Budget and the trustee of the Tax Fund. "If you are not going to be in charge of the money, why do we need a legislature?" she asked.
Berry said that unfortunately people do not always make educated choices in electing their representatives. "Many politicians do not have the strategies to change the policies," she said.
Aubrey Washington asked Christensen why she didn't propose a territorial manager similar to city managers on the mainland, or call for an amendment to the Revised Organic Act that would prohibit deficits. "There is a law in place to say that the budget must be balanced," she replied. "My bill simply addresses fiscal responsibility and making prudent decisions."
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