Gov. deJongh to deliver State of the Territory Address today State of the Territory Address


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ST. THOMAS - As Gov. John deJongh Jr. gives his annual State of the Territory Address to the V.I. Legislature tonight, he will have to balance the grim realities of the economy, crime and other issues with solid plans to get the territory back on track.

"DeJongh will use his fifth State of the Territory Address to again reiterate and highlight the stark financial realities facing the Virgin Islands and outline the significant steps the territory must take in the months and years ahead as the Virgin Islands continues to emerge and recover from the Great Recession," Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. said in a prepared statement.

"The governor will also update the public on his administration's plans in the areas of education, law enforcement, public safety as well as economic development and health care overhaul."

This is the first State of the Territory Address deJongh will give after winning re-election in November. Without the pressure to keep his job, the governor has gained the freedom to choose his own priorities and make hard decisions without fear of alienating voters.

Shortfall

The deJongh administration recently announced that the government is facing an $82 million budget shortfall in the current fiscal year, and as a result, none of the negotiated salary increases will be paid until there is funding for them.

While this has sparked outrage from unionized government employees, the governor's message in tonight's speech will likely be one of sacrifice for the greater good. He may even bring up the possibility of layoffs or other more severe cost-cutting measures.

In that light, the governor announced Friday that he cancelled the reception previously scheduled to be held at Estate Catharineberg after his address.

"Given the tough fiscal realities the territory is facing now and in the foreseeable future, and while the Virgin Islands continues to recover from the devastating effects of the Great Recession, a decision was announced on Friday evening to cancel the event which traditionally follows the governor's annual State of the Territory Address," Greaux said in a prepared statement.

Borrowing

In recent weeks, deJongh has mentioned that he will not pursue any more borrowing to balance the budget or keep the government afloat. The current year's budget is based on about $130 million in borrowed money, yet still is coming up short.

That borrowing was backed by rum revenues from the Cruzan Rum and Diageo rum distilleries. The government floated hundreds of millions in bonds on behalf of those companies, banking on recouping that investment when the increased rum production starts bringing money back to the territory through the rum excise tax rebate. For every proof gallon of rum made in the Virgin Islands that is sold in the United States, the territory gets $13.25 of the $13.50 federal excise tax.

The rum industry growth in the territory is the one bright spot on the economic horizon, and deJongh probably will highlight that in his speech.

He will also address tourism in light of the struggling economy, as the territory relies on the revenues the industry brings in. The governor and tourism commissioner's recent trip to Florida to meet with cruise line executives revealed a need for the territory to improve its product and offer new and exciting things to draw repeat visitors off the boats and onto the shore.

DeJongh has been stressing in recent weeks the need for the private sector to step up and begin to invest in the territory's economic growth, and he certainly will repeat that message tonight.

Property tax

On Friday, the government received the news that federal court lifted the injunction barring the issuance of property tax bills under a new tax structure. DeJongh likely will talk about the ruling and how it will affect the territory's finances in the coming years.

Crime

Crime, specifically homicide, is at an all-time high in the territory and will be a major topic in the State of the Territory Address. In 2010, 66 homicides, which included four vehicular homicides, were committed in the Virgin Islands. Police Commissioner Novelle Francis Jr. announced his retirement at the end of 2010, and deJongh may discuss the process for filling that position and how new leadership in the V.I. Police Department ties into his plans for reducing violent crime in the territory.

New Cabinet

In the past, the governor has used the State of the Territory Address to make major cabinet change announcements, and he may do it again. He already has made some changes and has indicated more will come in the first few months of his second term.

HOVENSA

Tonight, the governor also may address the multiple incidents at the HOVENSA oil refinery on St. Croix in recent months.

Sprays of oil, billowing black smoke from burning off oil spills and releases of hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide into the air have raised the alarm of nearby residents, health and environmental officials.

A recent report submitted to deJongh found that many of the local agencies charged with monitoring HOVENSA are generally overwhelmed and underfunded for such a massive task. The report did outline several measures that could increase local oversight over the refinery and work closer with federal agencies. DeJongh may detail plans to keep a closer eye on HOVENSA.

Hospitals

Other health concerns, especially the two settlement agreements in place for the territory's two hospitals' hemodialysis units, also may be addressed in the speech tonight. Schneider Hospital hired CEO Alice Taylor in 2010, and Luis Hospital just hired CEO Jeff Nelson last week, so deJongh may talk about how he will work with the new leadership to improve health care in the territory.

Education

Now that all the territory's high schools are fully accredited, the governor has been pushing his early-childhood education agenda as a top priority for education reform in the Virgin Islands. He will likely will discuss the strides made by the Early Childhood Advisory Committee of the V.I. Children and Family Council, including a recent move to create a rating system for childcare providers in the territory, and future plans to improve the quality of education for the youngest minds in the Virgin Islands.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 774-7882 ext. 311 or e-mail alewin@dailynews.vi.

When: 7 p.m. tonight

Where: Ottley Legislative Hall, St. Thomas

Where to watch: Broadcast live on the Legislature's TV channel - Innovative Cable 17 on St. Thomas-St. John and channel 5 on St. Croix. Public television station WTJX Channel 12 will also broadcast the speech live.

Where to listen: Live radio broadcast on 102.9 FM on St. Thomas and 90.09 FM on St.Croix.

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