Three candidates for governor presented their platforms at the University of the Virgin Islands’ Gubernatorial Forum Tuesday evening, fielding questions ranging from saving the Government Employees Retirement System, shoring up the agriculture industry and, should they win the governorship, what kind of legacy they want to leave behind.
Warren Mosler and Soraya Diase-Coffelt, both independent candidates, and Democratic nominee Albert Bryan went toe-to-toe at the second of four forums organized by UVI’s Institute for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness. Two more are slated for Wednesday and Thursday evening at the university’s St. Croix campus.
The other four candidates – Gov. Kenneth Mapp, Adlah “Foncie” Donastorg, Janette Millin Young and Moleto Smith — said they would attend the St. Croix forum, according to Haldane Davies, moderator and UVI Vice President for Business Development and Innovation.”
“I’m running entirely as matter of conscience,” said Mosler in his opening statement, touting 45 years of experience in the financial markets.
“We have a plan, a very detailed plan. It’s called ‘Putting the People First,’” said Coffelt, appealing to voters as a former judge, a lawyer, a small business owner and a mother.
Meanwhile, Bryan, a businessman and former Labor Commissioner armed with an economic degree, stressed: “Most of our problem is in education. Education is where we really need to start.”
The three candidates took the opportunity to remind voters how they would address the looming collapse of GERS. Bryan said his team has designed a three-pronged plan: lower the unfunded liability, secure payments to retirees, and lower the cost of the retirement system to government. Bryan also proposed five different funding sources to infuse much needed cash to the system: seeking a new distillery for the territory, instituting research on marijuana as a revenue source, recalculating the rum cover-over charges owed to the territory, exploring how to benefit from online sports gambling and looking at gas excise taxes denied to the V.I. for a number of years.
Mosler, leveraging his decades of experience in business and finance, stressed that the Virgin Islands needs to take advantage of the fact that it gets to keep its own income taxes. The unfunded liability is overstated, he said: if a retiree gets $3,000 from GERS, about $1,000 of that is returned to government coffers in the form of income taxes. Mosler advocates that the GERS keep this amount, a strategy that could extend the system’s solvency by up to 10 years.
Mosler also pointed to some $600 million in rum cover-over bonds that were never sold but can be contributed directly to GERS, doubling the amount of money the system has under management.
Coffelt advocated borrowing the $2.8 billion in unfunded liability from the Department of Treasury and insisted the government’s share of contributions be made current. She also called out the fact that the governor and lieutenant governor draw their pensions from a special account, not from the GERS like the rest of government employees.
“That is not fair. A governor and and lieutenant governor should be one with the people. What does that mean? Their pension should be paid to GERS,” said Coffelt, adding her administration’s first order of business would be to submit legislation addressing the issue.
One audience member asked the candidates how they propose to strengthen and promote local agriculture. Coffelt said that after talking to farmers she determined there is an urgent need for a reliable source of water in all three districts, citing its absence in Bordeaux and St. John, and leaking water storage on St. Croix. The government also needs to grant longer land leases to farmers and install more markets where they can sell their produce, said Coffelt.
Mosler did not have specific ideas, but said he supports the industry and will work with UVI in exploring ways to shore it up.
“I don’t see it as a mainstay of our economy but it’s a good thing and I like it,” said Mosler.
Bryan raised the possibility of an aquaponics agribusiness center, a project he has already been working on in the past few years, he said. Bryan also shared what he called his “pie in the sky” proposal, a “fruit census” that would systematically send agents out to residents’ yards, document the thousands of fruits that would otherwise drop uselessly to the ground, collect them and have them go through a processing center to send to markets and schools.
The candidates had varying ideas on how to revive activity in the territory’s towns, including downtown Charlotte Amalie, Frederiksted and Christiansted. Mosler suggested transitioning certain UVI departments – such as the library or student housing – to Frederiksted, envisioning a revitalized district where a future school for the arts at the university might showcase its products and performances. He also advocated addressing the parking space problem in Christiansted.
Mosler also proposed attracting various highly paid sectors of the working world – say, brain surgeons – to conduct weeklong conferences in the territory, a situation that can result in the Virgin Islands getting the taxes these conference-goers would otherwise pay to other jurisdictions.
Bryan proposed a plan that would give benefits like those given to Economic Development Commission beneficiaries to businesses that people want to see built in towns. Restating his faith in the territory’s youth, he also suggested enabling universal Wi-Fi in downtown areas to draw young people and serve tourists. Investing in downtown schools could also cause a ripple effect that would see the redevelopment of areas like Backstreet, Upstreet and Garden Street, Bryan said.
Coffelt pushed for the restoration of historical sites and putting those sites on maps. The trash issue also needs addressing, she said, saying she would hold the Waste Management Authority accountable for spending part of its $25 million budget on that effort. Coffelt also said the enterprise zones need to be expanded, and more police officers need to be stationed in towns, especially in badly lit areas.
When asked what kind of legacy they would want to leave behind if elected into office, the candidates’ responses varied. Coffelt wants her administration to be remembered for its transparency and financial accountability.
“I would like it to be known as one that fought corruption and actually won the fight for corruption,” said Coffelt. “Corruption, as we know it right now, is a cancer and it’s eating us from the inside out.”
Coffelt said she would systematically send in teams into various government agencies to find out where funds are being wasted and plug those leaks. She would also appoint an anti-corruption task force consisting of local and federal agents. The task force would utilize federal and local audits that would eventually lead to the prosecution of crimes of corruption according to Coffelt.
“I want to be remembered for revolutionizing the V.I. education system,” said Bryan. “Education fixes everything, your healthcare, economy.”
Bryan said that today, ideas – not products – are valued, but the V.I. community’s “extinct” education system is still teaching students to live in the 20th century, not the 21st. He also proposed infusing crime-prone communities with after-school programs and other youth activities that would engage young people.
“What I want to be my legacy is that I turned this around,” said Mosler, referring to the territory’s dismal financial trajectory.
According to Mosler, nothing has changed in how the government operated in the last 15 years, which featured the same neglect and mismanagement of resources.
“They say to get out a hole, stop digging. And we’re still digging,” Mosler said.