Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. on Monday detailed how back-to-back disasters – two hurricanes and an ongoing pandemic – have brought fiscal and physical challenges but described the state of the territory as “resurgent” as the government looks toward the next year with renewed hope brought on by increasing tax revenues, new economic development projects, a growth in the marine, tech and agriculture industries and a renewed focus on refining the islands’ infrastructure.
In his third State of the Territory Address on Monday, a nearly three-hour speech, Bryan focused first on the territory’s COVID-19 response, elaborating on what he has stressed again and again over the past 11 months in weekly news briefings. After an uncertain start, the territory emerged as a leader among states and other territories with the aggressive rollout of a strategic and intentional plan to combat the virus’s spread, maintaining capacity within the health care system for the potential hospitalization of COVID-positive patients, ramping up the availability of testing and coordinating an effective system for contact tracing, he said.
“While some may debate our decisions and our methods in controlling the spread of the coronavirus, there is no debate regarding the results. We have kept our people safe,” Bryan said.
The governor emphasized increasing the number of hospital beds with an alternate care facility on St. Croix, putting in place a masking and social distancing policy and making ports of entry “safe” with screening protocols and partnerships with airlines that now ask for visitors traveling in to provide proof of a negative COVID test before boarding the plane.
The need for a rapid shift to COVID response, however, came as the territory was still rebuilding from the hurricanes of 2017. With that shift, Bryan said, the government was forced to table programs it was in the process of rolling out, such as a “Cradle to Career and Beyond” initiative within the Department of Education, which puts an emphasis on curriculum and instruction. Much as the pandemic forced the territory to look at its tourism product through a different lens as the cruise ship industry took a hiatus, Bryan said, the government’s approach to public education has also become more focused on technology and the creation of digital spaces for learning.
“This administration remains committed to equipping every child with a device and has already distributed 5,265 Chromebooks/tablets and 2,150 MiFi devices. These technological advancements are now a permanent part of our approach to education,” Bryan said, adding that with teachers and administrators embracing the shift, the territory’s public high school graduation rate increased from 62.6 percent in 2019 to 70.9 percent in 2020.
The Fiscal Picture
For most of last year, the government has maintained at least 30 days of cash on hand, but with a “record-breaking” tax year in 2020, Bryan said on Monday that the government hopes to finally say, “gone are the days of measuring cash on hand in the single digits.” Along with increased individual income and gross receipts tax collections, $37.8 million in current-year property tax collections and $25.1 million in delinquent property tax revenue will help the government be able to budget for some longstanding obligations, including the return of the 8 percent salary reduction implemented in 2011.
“As we begin preparation of the executive budget for the upcoming fiscal year, it has become clear that we can begin paying down that obligation sooner than originally expected,” he said. “If we are granted authorization to resume collection of excise taxes by the courts, we will be able to retire the full obligation within one calendar year,” Bryan said, adding that a proposal committing the government to pay off the entire $37.8 million with excise taxes collected this and next fiscal year has been forwarded to the Legislature for review and approval.
Balancing the news, however, Bryan cautioned residents to prepare for a worse fiscal year 2021, as the local economy absorbs the blow of high unemployment rates and the closure of local businesses as a result of the pandemic. The federal economic stimulus package recently passed by Congress does not include much direct aid for state and local governments, leaving the territory to belt-tighten, increase collection efforts and develop new sources of revenue.
Disaster recovery activity, consistent employment at the Limetree Bay facility on St. Croix, COVID-related federal funding and a surge in overnight guests are what’s holding the territory up right now, with the governor saying that in fiscal year 2020 approximately $339 million in federal disaster recovery funds were spent, to be followed with another $621 million in the current fiscal year.
Among the projects outlined were:
– The opening of Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital’s new modular facility, JFL North, in May;
– The rollout of Education’s facility master plan, with Gladys Abraham Elementary transitioning to the new Raphael O. Wheatley Skill Center and the demolition of both Arthur A. Richards Jr. High School and Evelyn M. Williams Elementary School on St. Croix;
– The repairs and restoration of Emile Griffith Ballpark and Lionel Roberts Stadium on St. Thomas and Vincent Mason Coral Pool in Frederiksted;
– The revitalization of St. Croix’s Rudolph Schulterbrandt Agricultural Complex;
– The restoration of the territorywide Tsunami Alert Warning System;
– The completion of the final two segments of Melvin Evans Highway, along with road repairs and drainage improvements in Gallows Bay; and
– Repairs and renovations of The Battery in Cruz Bay.
Bryan added that the EnVIsion Tomorrow Homeowner Rehabilitation Program through the Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority has been providing grants of as much as $250,000 to rehabilitate homes that were severely damaged by hurricanes Irma or Maria. To meet demand, the government has increased the allocation of community development block grant funding from $60 million to $150 million.
“Currently, 689 applicants have been deemed eligible for the program,” Bryan said. “Of those applicants, 53 have already been awarded grants under the program. Now that the program is fully operational, we look forward to awarding more grants this year and getting people back into their homes.”
Economic Development and Infrastructure
Earlier this year, Bryan announced the rollout of his Vision 2040 initiative through the V.I. Economic Development Authority, which would create a blueprint for the future, with the community’s input.
“When completed, this plan will serve as the framework that guides our economic development, not just this year, but for the next two decades,” Bryan said during his address on Monday. “This is the first time in the history of the Virgin Islands that we will holistically examine the systemic roadblocks that have impeded our economic growth, with an eye toward identifying diverse, sustainable and successful industries that can create a viable workforce. It is important that as a people, we adopt a plan that outlives the tenure of any one governor and maintains a consistent course of progress.”
Part of that process is reexamining marketing and operations of the Department of Tourism, as cruise ships are not expected to return to the territory until at least the spring, with a projected decrease in arrivals. Still, the government prepares to pursue dredging permits for Long Bay, Crown Bay and Gallows Bay, while also pushing for the merger of the V.I. Port Authority and West Indian Company Ltd.
WICO, Bryan said, has downsized in staff and hours since the beginning of the pandemic and Bryan said the government is proposing that the ownership interest of the company, which is a subsidiary of the Public Finance Authority, be transferred to the Port Authority, with WICO given full responsibility to manage all local cruise ports. The governor also spoke about rebuilding and expanding cargo handling and storage infrastructure at the Crown Bay Cargo Terminal, the result of a $21.9 million grant award from the U.S. Transportation Department, which will be enhanced by the redevelopment of the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School site and adjacent property for port expansion.
“Rents generated by these properties will be reinvested in the Department of Education’s school maintenance program, making this a win-win for the Virgin Islands,” Bryan said.
Meanwhile, as the territory sees more air traffic, including private jets, Tourism will be “reigniting” marketing campaigns to encourage the return of leisure travel, including a $2 million contract for a “Reconnect with Paradise” campaign.
On the other end, Bryan also drove home the implementation of new tech, marine and agriculture initiatives, including a push for the RTPark to bring in more firms and companies. To help, the governor said he will send the Legislature a proposal to establish a “Catalyst Fund” to provide gap financing for high-impact economic development projects.
“The fund would issue loans to bridge the amount the borrower can obtain from more conventional sources and the amount needed to start or sustain a business,” Bryan said. “The fund would be administered by the RTPark, with an initial capitalization of $5 million. Providing support to business development in the territory ensures the creation of more jobs for our people and diversification of our economy.”
Meanwhile, the past year saw the emergence of industrial hemp as a new industry within the agricultural sector. Along with the establishment of the V.I. Hemp Commission and implementation of industrial hemp laws, the commission also developed parameters for the proper regulation of the industry. In December, the commission approved the first commercial hemp grower and hemp seed distributor licenses in the territory, with Crucian Hemp Farms, LLLP planning to cultivate and harvest 100 acres of CBD-rich industrial hemp. Bryan said it is anticipated the local hemp industry will ultimately create “hundreds of jobs.”
In a similar vein, the government is moving forward with efforts to bolster the local agricultural industry. Bryan touted the Fresh Ministries Aquaponics Center in Estate Bethlehem, St. Croix, as the “model for the future of affordable and sustainable agriculture,” with its founder obtaining a $2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration for a 50,000 square foot greenhouse space that broke ground last June.
This project, in partnership with Farmers in Action, was provided $300,000 in local matching funds by the V.I. government and will be used as a training center to teach local residents aquaponics.
To address the development of a local workforce that has to keep pace with these new skills, Bryan said he will rollout, in partnership with the Department of Labor, a $10 million Skills for Today, on-the-job training program, which will target 625 individuals over the next 24 months and is meant to complement the department’s ongoing registered apprenticeship program.
Looking back over a year that was marked by a record number of homicides, Bryan said he has signed into law a bill that establishes an Office of Gun Violence Prevention under his office and brings together law enforcement, social service providers, community leaders, the clergy and others in an effort to “interrupt violence before it leads to bloodshed on our streets.”
In the meantime, the governor also painted a picture of a V.I. Police Department that is understaffed and underfunded. He proposed measures to supplement the department’s manpower while also looking at how to reduce the number of guns coming into the territory. Along with restoring ShotSpotter gunshot detection and rolling out the first phase of a public surveillance camera system that will be operational this summer, Bryan said the government is also stepping up efforts to intercept firearms that are being illegally smuggled in through the ports.
“To achieve this, we are forging partnerships with our airline partners and solidifying coordination among relevant enforcement agencies. We look forward to submitting legislation to complement our efforts. The proposed legislation seeks to clarify licensing requirements and declaration processes for transporting firearms, ammunition and accessories into the territory. Further, we will seek to require 24-hour notice of intent to import firearms into the territory to facilitate VIPD search and declaration,” Bryan said.
In terms of manpower, the return of the Police Auxiliary Force last year was helpful, and the governor said this year VIPD will introduce a Community Service Officer Program that will give residents interested in law enforcement the opportunity to serve in entry-level patrolling positions without going through the required training for peace officers. A mandate requiring peace officers throughout the executive branch to serve at least 16 regular non-overtime hours per calendar month on patrol with VIPD will also be implemented, increasing the department’s presence and response capabilities across the territory, he said.