Opportunity wastes little time with the unprepared

The above paraphrases a quote from Idowu Koyenikan, the internationally recognized consultant and author. It is an appropriate introduction to my thoughts on the windfall opportunity available to the Virgin Islands.

A confluence of recent events results in unprecedented federal financial support. If it is used appropriately and deployed strategically the Virgin Islands can experience a fundamental economic transformation. This windfall has not occurred in the past fifty years and may not again in the coming fifty. 

February 3, 20201, the  VI Consortium reported  that total federal government public assistance appropriations in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes exceeds  $8 billion. Also reported is that Governor Bryan  has petitioned President Biden to free up some $600 million of CDBG Disaster funding that would otherwise be used as a 10 percent cost match for FEMA public assistance funding and allow those dollars to be directed to other approved disaster-recovery projects. 

In addition to hurricane relief support, there is also funding available to off-set the health, community and economic impact of COVID 19.  Budget Director Jenifer O’Neal shared information with  the VI Legislature that the Territory received $545.6 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. 

In late February following enactment of the American Rescue Plan, President Biden’s 1.9 trillion COVID aid proposal,  Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett announced that the measure creates equality in the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit for the Virgin Islands as well as makes available an additional $584 million to respond to the public health COVID emergency and the negative economic impacts associated with the pandemic.

There are few areas of life that are not impacted by this amount of financial assistance. 

Programs at the Departments of Labor, Education, Human Services, and Health are receiving funding as have the Water and Power, Port, Economic Development and Housing Finance Authorities. Direct payments have gone to residents through stimulus payment checks and direct federal government program spending has supported small businesses, renters and mortgage payers. 

Aggregating the above, the federal government is positioned to transfer something approaching $9.1 billion dollars to a community of 96,000 individuals, the equivalent of $94,792 per individual. This is an extraordinary commitment of funding for programs and capital expenditures. And, should Mr. Biden’s  almost $4 trillion-dollar infrastructure initiative, the American Jobs and  American Family Plans, be approved by the US congress, the Virgin Islands will receive even more financial support from those measures. 

This level of federal  financial support is unprecedented.  It can be transformative. And,  there should be transparency in how it is used.  What is possible from this extraordinary investment is the potential to dramatically reposition the Virgin Islands competitive advantage vis-a-vis Caribbean region neighbors.

The not discussed question is whether we collectively have the vision, commitment and discipline to make sure this amount of financial assistance is used in a manner that maximizes its development potential.

Far too many articles, government studies, and talk-radio discussions advise on how best to improve life, economy and governance in the territory. There are abundant recommendations, some more useful than others, on the importance of consensus of vision, effective management, transparency  and the importance of systematic follow through for any plans formulated and implemented.

A smorgasbord of information is publicly available. A Google search can readily identify prescriptions on public policy, educational and government web sites.  Best practices underpin many of these recommendations. The  interested reader should take time to survey what has been written. 

What needs to be said, however, is that vision in and of itself is insufficient to get the job done. Whatever we choose to do requires consensus and detailed strategic implementation.

This windfall of federal assistance comes with strings attached. Funding is directed to specific initiatives. We do not have the ability to reprogram these monies to directly address local spending priorities. An issue that has been in the forefront of concern to many, the impending insolvency of the Government Employee Retirement System, has no solution in this windfall. 

Dollars, however, are fungible. Absent this federal assistance local funding would have to be used to address many of these expenditures.

Where local spending priorities overlap with federal assistance, federal monies can now be deployed to achieve both the federal and local objectives. Much of the federal assistance is directed at making local institutions and communities more resilient to social and economic shocks, as well as to advance economic competitiveness in the twenty-first century.

The pandemic has demanded a reckoning  on what are critical government services and how most effectively to deliver those services.  Governments and organizations have speeded up the redesign and implementation of urban streets to make these more pedestrian friendly as well as to promote outdoor space usage. Technological applications have accelerated the implementation of service and delivery practices that reduce labor requirements and cost yet remaining responsive to user needs.

The COVID relief spending targets these transformation realities in health and education services, workforce re-imagining, and support for existing and new businesses and scientific advancement. 

The same can be said for public assistance spending on capital projects.  A comprehensive facility solution can as an example,  eliminate redundancy and reduce the staffing, operating and maintenance cost of  multiple facilities.  Building infrastructure that is economically and socially responsive to tomorrow’s reality should be the prism through which expenditures are made.

Aligning resources and objectives in the context of how you best diversify an economy allows for proceeding strategically and succeeding.

 It will be unconscionable if in five years the Virgin Islands is revisiting those challenges which existed prior to this federal government largess.

Our economic dependence on tourism and particularly cruise tourism as well as our beholding to the vicissitudes of fossil fuels needs changing.  Government regulations that frustrate business formation and growth need to be rendered  more accommodative. Our downtown areas must again be vitalized and be part of our economic transformation.  Public education at all levels must produce graduates qualified to staff the local economy. Government and private health services should complement each other and provide services that preclude the need to seek off-island providers except in the most specialized of health service areas. Public safety must regain the confidence of the individuals it exists to serve. And, efforts should be redoubled to preserve and enhance the natural environment for residents and visitors alike.

This federal windfall is a one-time opportunity. We can and should use these resources to make real and lasting change and in doing so re-assume a leadership role among Caribbean countries in moving the region forward.

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