At the height of New York City's fiscal crisis some 30 years ago, the city administration appealed to then-President Ford for assistance. The New York Daily News summarized the federal response with its now famous headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." And New York was dying, the result of profound social and economic changes, its own failed leadership, a false sense of entitlement, and federal policies that were indifferent to the fate of the nation's cities.
New York City didn't die, but no thanks to the federal government. It was saved by the combination of a governor who demonstrated strong leadership skills and its business, labor and cultural communities which, possibly for the only time ever, pulled together and made shared sacrifices. It would be a serious mistake, however, to view the largely happy ending that resulted as having been inevitable.
When one cuts through the mass of testimony at the June 16 congressional hearing regarding the appointment of a chief financial officer and the development of effective management systems for the Virgin Islands, the important message is the one delivered by the Bush administration via the Interior Department's witness. It, too, could be summed up with a headline: "Bush to V.I.: Drop Dead."
According to the acting assistant Secretary of the Interior, the Virgin Islands faces "periodic fiscal crises." Say what? The Pleistocene Age was a geologic "period." A "periodic fiscal crisis" does not continue unabated for a quarter of a century. It does not have the shape of a downward spiral.
The witness continued, "We believe solutions can be found within the local territorial government …" Really? Can anyone point to a single piece of substantive evidence to support this belief? In a federal administration increasingly detached from reality on any number of fronts, this "belief" must be placed in the category of a "faith-based initiative" rather than being viewed as an informed policy statement.
The witness concluded by saying that the V.I. government should buy and install its own financial management system because the U.S. government budget, approximately $1 trillion, can't afford it, and, anyway, it's not our job, despite the fact that the same U.S. government owns the territory.
The future of the Virgin Islands was not helped by the performance of Gov. Turnbull, whose penchant for foolishness and grandiose but meaningless statements seems to be growing the longer he sits in Government House. The governor seems to be taking his lines from President Bush's speeches on Iraq — for example, labeling the proposed legislation an "ill-considered effort," "unprecedented," to "reverse course."
Sadly, there are many places on Earth that need to "reverse course." The Virgin Island is one of them. It needs to reverse course not only for fiscal reasons, but to begin the process of salvaging the lives of a whole generation of young Virgin Islanders who are growing up increasingly without hope for a decent and productive life.
With respect to the chief financial officer and the implementation of real financial management in the immediate future, the governor's opposition effectively lets everyone off the hook. If the governor of the territory is against it, why should we be for it? As a result, despite Delegate Christensen's strong effort, the chances of it happening must be considered minimal.
Now for the consequences. In politics second chances take a long time to come around. Sometimes they never do. For example, the failure of the Clinton health care plan has condemned the country to a prolonged period of inaction and deterioration that is likely to continue until the crisis is so overwhelming that it must be faced.
Similarly, an opportunity for the Virgin Islands has in all probability been lost. The proposed chief financial officer and new system are not cure-alls. They are hooks to begin the process of turning the territory around.
What is likely to happen now is that the Virgin Islands, like the Bush administration in Iraq, will "stay the course." Staying this course is going to produce continuing social decline and economic stagnation, public services declines, lost pensions and the weakening of virtually every public system in the territory.
"Staying this course" also presents the real danger of a very "hard landing" if there is a sudden financial collapse. In that event, there will certainly be a visit from Washington, but it will be on far-less favorable terms for Virgin Islanders than anything proposed by Delegate Christensen.
All in all, it was a bad day.
Editor's note: Management consultant Frank Schneiger has worked with V.I. agencies since 1975, most recently as consultant to United Way of St. Thomas/St. John. He was one of the founders of the St. Thomas/St. John Youth Multiservice Center.
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