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Editorial: “Local Tourists” Feel Unheard – Yolandapesto

Editorial: “Local Tourists” Feel Unheard

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It’s been two weeks since we started our experiment asking locals to review our community with fresh eyes, as a tourist might, and report back what is working well and what could be improved.

We have well more than 100 suggestions so far, ranging from the very simple and practical – tell tourists about local foods and bush teas – to the not so simple and practical – give every Virgin Islander a check each year like Alaska does based on its oil revenue.

One common theme, however, is basic distrust of local government. It’s sad stuff, especially given US and UK officials’ recent assessment of our neighboring British Virgin Islands. Everyone deserves a government they can believe in and trust.

Fort Christian, once the symbol and seat of all VI government. (Photo: Mat Probasco)

What we tend to forget is that our government is made up of you and me. We elect and employ our neighbors. If they screw up, it’s up to us to get rid of them. We have that power, unlike the BVI, which allows only a tiny portion of its overall population to vote. Yet we continue to act powerless.

I will not have it.

I’ve reached out to the Department of Public Works with your ideas about island roadwork and beautification projects. I’ve also reached out to the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission with your concerns about taxi operations. Next, I’ll be sending some of your ideas to the Department of Tourism and the Virgin Islands Department of Oil Extraction and Export (VIDOEE) to see about our checks.

If they ignore your comments, you’ll read about it here.

Public Works (which set up a customer feedback website earlier this year) and the Taxi Commission have already responded with interest but, like everyone else, are swamped with the recent COVID wave. It’s completely understandable, also, that this is extra work. They were not expecting to have to answer a bunch of questions from you and me. That’s what they expect at the Legislature, right?

Do you listen to the Senate hearings? Do you watch? Do you read recaps in the Source? Do the hearings make sense to you? If they do not, call or email your senator and tell them. They regularly have department heads and would-be developers in the chamber to testify. If you think your senator is acting in their own interest and not yours, or you think they are confused or are in any other way not acting properly, let them know.

If you do not let them know you are watching, the temptation creeps in to do a less good job, to put it politely. Elected officials are supposed to monitor and guide non-elected public servants. Those non-elected department heads are supposed to faithfully keep the territory’s roads and sewers, taxis, and tourism promotions, health and safety, and everything else the government does running on a budget.

A lot of your comments, while not calling out specific graft, suggest a local government eager to act in its own interest, not yours. People feel ignored and stolen from.

“I am aware of the government’s shadow agenda,” one reader wrote, saying the VI state’s standard mode of operation was “unthinking greed.”

Others say our government is eager to pay itself first. If the Government Employee Retirement System is any example, our government lacks planning and foresight more than anything.

I was having some fun with the reader who suggested checks like the Alaska Permanent Fund, but they do make a good point about artificial barriers we put up to our involvement in our economy and government:

“I know it is possible to estimate the impact of tourism on the islands, and a distribution to the citizens based on that revenue could be applied in the same manner. That way, all locals would have a vested interest in promoting tourism. I know all government is inherently greedy and would loathe diverting money to the citizenry, but maybe a small cutback by the government and a small increase in taxes could do the trick. Having a motivated citizenry benefiting from tourism would probably increase visits to the islands (more revenue), and the deal would pay for itself, ”the reader wrote.

In a way, we already have that.

It’s supposed to work like this:

Money people earn in the territory is taxed. Those taxes go to organizations that help the people earning the money. The more money made, the more tax collected, the better the services.

It’s good to distrust these organizations. They have your money. Keep asking questions. Keep demanding answers. But hold off on the name-calling. What does having a “greedy” government even mean?

Some years ago, I sat through the trial of a retired USVI fire chief who allegedly demanded – and received – double retirement payments. The accused, who went on to be an elected official and is still active in the Virgin Islands government, was found not guilty by the jury.

To be clear, that person was found not guilty of the alleged crime – stealing public money – despite all the paper evidence and testimony.

When I hear about distrust of VI government, I do not think of huge wheels of inequity working against the common man. I think of that charming public servant and his very skilled lawyer. I think of his pledge that, if some mistake were made, he would gladly repay the money. I think of the bored and confused jury. I think of the inept – and probably underpaid – prosecutors. I think of the brave accountant who called attention to the matter. I think of all the other incidents that have been swept under the rug.

We do not have a greedy government, in my opinion. We have a lack of accountability.

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