In his first State of the Territory Address, Governor Kenneth A. Mapp didn’t shy away from speaking to the Legislature and citizens of the U.S. Virgin Islands with candor, especially when it came to the fiscal situation of the Territory. At the start of 2015, the Government of the Virgin Islands has a budget shortfall of $91.2 million, as well as $176 million owed for hospital improvements, the Government Employee Retirement System (GERS) and other important programs. The current financial situation, according to Governor Mapp, is the worst the Territory has ever experienced and drastic changes must be made to improve its financial footing.
Given the state of the Government of the Virgin Islands’ budget, it’s not surprising that Governor Mapp issued some considerable challenges to how the Territory manages its economy. As the Territory’s relationship with Hess Oil draws to a somewhat contentious close, Governor Mapp reiterated the importance of a more diversified economy to the U.S. Virgin Island’s future prosperity.
Taking into account the Territory’s 13% unemployment rate, Governor Mapp announced his intention to implement a jobs plan to try to bring some life back into the territorial economy. Some of these jobs will come from government itself, in the areas of revenue collection, law enforcement, education and health care. Others will come from a continued focus on building the tourism industry, primarily through hotel development and a push to get more visitors to stay in the U.S. Virgin Islands overnight.
Another key aspect of boosting tourism is creating an even more appealing visitor experience, which Governor Mapp says should include additional attention to sports, events and heritage tourism. The Governor also pointed to the opportunities presented by the opening of Cuba as a travel destination for U.S. citizens, which should help Caribbean tourism overall.
In addition to tourism, the Governor covered some proposals in numerous other industries. He would like to see a renewed focus on growing organic produce for use in schools, hospitals and elder care facilities, and a move away from sugar and processed foods. In law enforcement, the Territory is suffering a severe shortage of personnel and an almost total lack of technology for law enforcement officers to do their jobs. In education and elder care, the Governor intends to focus on building and staffing more schools and healthcare facilities.
Finally, Governor Mapp highlighted the pressing need for improvements in and changes to the health care system, as chronic conditions are on the rise and it has become nearly impossible for many people to pay for health care in the Territory.
For business owners, Governor Mapp’s address also offered an unsettling picture of a Territory in which partnerships between the public and private sectors simply cannot happen until the Government’s financial situation is more stable. In the end, the ability to turn to the government for financing has played a major role in getting the U.S. Virgin Islands to its current state. Governor Mapp said he believes his job is to help get the Territory out of that situation.
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