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HomeNewsArchivesTelephone Town Hall Links Delegate, Interior Official with V.I. Audience

Telephone Town Hall Links Delegate, Interior Official with V.I. Audience

More than 125 Virgin Islanders were on hand to hear from a visiting official of the federal Department of the Interior and from Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen. Residents also were able to ask questions about the problems facing the territory. All that was missing was the folding chairs.

Wednesday night’s town hall meeting wasn’t held in a cramped government conference room or a drafty middle school gymnasium. It was held on the telephone, as Christensen and Anthony Babauta, U.S. Department of Interior assistant secretary of Insular Affairs, wrapped up a whirlwind tour of St. Croix to discuss the island’s economic crisis and other issues affecting the entire territory.

Interested participants called into a conference call center and were able to hear the two officials sum up their visit, which included meetings with hospital and health officials, senators, executive branch officials, Hovensa managers and union members, as well as economic development officials. Then 16 of them got the chance to ask questions about a variety of issues.

Christensen said the territory is in line for some of the $50 million available from an open disaster declaration. The secretary of labor has made a commitment to the territory’s Department of Labor, which has already submitted a grant application, she said.

Christensen said the territory has been ruled not eligible for a trade adjustment program that many states are eligible for when businesses in their borders close due to foreign investment. A Department of Agriculture program to aid localities suffering from high energy costs, which certainly sounds like it applies to the territory, was also ruled as ineligible for the territory. Christensen said when she gets back to the capital she will submit legislation that would make the territory eligible for the first program, and will explore with Ag officials why the territory was denied for the latter.

Babauta said after several days on St. Croix he now has a much better understanding of the scope of the problem caused by Hovensa’s closure, and also the depth of the pain it caused. Plans are being hatched between the government and the community to move forward, he said.

Babauta said that in his time on-island, he has come to realize that for 40 years Hovensa was more than an employer. It was “part of the community … part of the social fabric of the island,” he said.

Being a native of Guam, Babauta said he understands the problems, and while he doesn’t have a “silver bullet” to overcome them, he will return to Washington Thursday morning with a fistful of ideas and proposals developed during his talks with locals and a commitment to help.

Other issues discussed during the two-hour telephone session included:

– GERS audit. Asked by a caller about the status of a draft audit critical of the Government Employees Retirement System, Babauta said he has lost track of where the audit was in the process but he will go back to the capital to follow up on it;
– Elections. Several people called in who were sharply indignant about the state of the election system and the process of the proposed recall against members of the St. Croix District Board of Elections. Both Christensen and Babauta said the issue was in the proper venue, the federal court, and expressed confidence that it would be swiftly resolved.
– Hospitals. Christensen said her discussion with hospital and Department of Health officials was one of the most complex of the visit. St. Croix’s Juan F. Luis Hospital, while showing recent fiscal improvement, still owes its creditors more than $390 million.

“We know that that our hospitals are in crisis,” Christensen said. “There was a lot of discussion, about Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement, about whether the two hospitals should operate more closely, maybe come together in one system.”

“We heard a lot, we have a lot of work to do,” she concluded.

Christensen added that Tuesday she will introduce legislation changing the formula by which federal reimbursement is made to the territories.

– Legislature. Babauta met with seven members of the Senate and came away with 30 or 40 suggestions and programs to look into. “They were fairly frank with me on a multitude of issues,” he said. “I thought it was a very productive meeting.”
– Environment. More than one caller expressed concern about the environment, especially the southern coast of St. Croix, south and west of Hovensa. Reefs have been destroyed and fishing habitat damaged, the callers said. Babauta assured them that Hovensa would not simply walk away from the island without any responsibility for the long-term consequences of its petroleum refining operation.
– Energy. The Energy Development in Island Nations program has offered significant technical assistance as the territory rushes to meet Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s stated goal of cutting fossil fuel usage 60 percent by the year 2025. That program’s funding, however, expires in August, and Babauta said it is a likely casualty of funding wars going on in Washington, D.C.

He said he will continue to support the Department of Energy’s efforts in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but doesn’t have a dollar figure. “We’re all struggling with cutting budgets,” he said.

In another question, about the proposal to connect St. Thomas and Puerto Rico by underwater cable so that excess power generated on Puerto Rico can be used in the territory, Babauta said the plans are in the very early stage. Proponents still have to show that the project can be done less expensively than current alternatives. Christensen added that the issue is both one of energy and of regional security, the first link in a projected Caribbean-wide energy grid that eventually would lower costs for the entire region.

– Sports complex. Babauta said he knows the proposed $50 million sports complex planned for Frederiksted is a hotly contested issue and he didn’t want to take sides. He did call it an “opportunity,” and said that on Guam, the Northern Marianas or American Samoa, “they would jump at it, something that generates revenue on an annual basis and raises the profile of the territory.”

As if to reinforce his point about the plan being controversial, a later caller scolded Babauta for seeming to voice support.

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