Energy was the chief topic of discussion Thursday morning as Gov. John deJongh Jr. addressed the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce at their annual meeting.
The island’s business leaders filled the banquet hall at the Palms at Pelican Cove Resort to hear the governor elaborate on his state of the territory speech. In his opening remarks, attorney Mark Eckard, the new president of the chamber’s board of directors, was not shy in telling the governor what they wanted to hear.
“We need to know when we’re going to have cheaper and more reliable energy,” he said. “We need meaningful deadlines, and we need to know that those vested with the fiduciary duty to immediately lower our energy rates are achieving meaningful milestones toward those goals.”
Eckard told the crowd that the board had recently met to discuss their strategy and resolved that lowering energy costs on the island would be their sole strategic issue over the next three years.
“The St. Croix business community presently faces a number of significant challenges from just about every direction,” Eckard said, “and we will not ignore those challenges.”
He said the chamber’s board believes that energy is the foremost challenge facing the business community. “Our energy crisis poses an immediate life or death threat to our business community and, frankly, we’re running out of time.”
DeJongh simultaneously acknowledged the concerns of the business community while taking pains not to sound pessimistic during his speech.
He spoke about the huge hit the island’s economy took when the Hovensa refinery ceased operations, but spun it as an opportunity for St. Croix to move away from an economy dependent on a few major employers.
“More local jobs have been created in St. Croix than anywhere else within the territory, giving an indication that even at the height of our problems with our major employer, our local economy is resilient enough that it’s still providing jobs to individuals within the community,” he said.
“That tells me that we have something that we can work on. We have a foundation that can help us to do things a lot better.”
The governor pointed to progress made in reducing the cost of government. He said that while tax revenue had fallen 13 percent over the last year, government spending from the General Fund had fallen 10.5 percent.
“We’re going the right way. We’re just not going the right way fast enough,” he said.
On the energy issue, deJongh emphasized his commitment to converting the V.I. Water and Power Authority’s power plants so they can burn less expensive propane and liquefied natural gas, rather than oil. He said that no single move would solve the territory’s energy crisis and other initiatives were being considered, such as connecting to Puerto Rico’s power grid, but that ultimately the conversion to LNG would have the biggest impact on lowering costs in the near future.
“It’s very clear that we have to get off our dependence on fossil fuel. Even without the loss of the Hovensa subsidy, which we’ve enjoyed since the 60s, the cost is just too high,” he said.
DeJongh estimated that WAPA would be utilizing the cheaper fuel within 18 months and that energy costs for homes and businesses should drop “by at least a third.”
Speaking after the meeting, Eckard applauded the governor for sticking by the 18-month timeframe, but said he would still like to hear more details on exactly when bills will decrease and by how much.
“We have businesses that need to be able to plan. We have businesses that need to have predictability," he said
Asked whether he was hearing from businesses that 18 months may be too long to wait, Eckard replied that it was definitely a concern.
“There already are a number of businesses that haven’t made it to this point. So the answer to your question is yes,” he said. “There are a number of businesses on St. Croix that have shut down that have cited electricity costs as the reason for their inability to continue to operate.”
During his speech, the governor took the opportunity to reiterate many of the points he made in his state of the territory address. He stressed the need to attract more companies to the territory and for more thorough tax collection.
He also reaffirmed his stance that judges should be less lenient in setting bail for repeat offenders and that the territory’s two hospitals should be brought under one management.
DeJongh gave extra weight to troubles facing the Government Employee Retirement System. He said the territory could no longer afford to ignore the system’s shortfall of $70 million a year and warned that if GERS became insolvent, it would fall to the government and, ultimately, tax payers to clean up the mess.
DeJongh said that in order to fix the system everyone, including employers, current workers and retirees, would have to feel some pain. He said his administration was determined to address the issue but predicted it would be “a conversation no one wants to have.”
The chamber of commerce also announced its yearly awards at the meeting. The Women’s Coalition of St. Croix was named nonprofit of the year. John Eddie’s Low Life Bar and Refuge took honors as the best new business. Caribbean Printing and Marketing was named overall business of the year. The businessperson-of-the-year award went to Wendy Solomon of Media Mate Inc.