ST. THOMAS — Independent gubernatorial candidate Moleto Smith Jr. says the failure of Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s administration is clear.
The Virgin Islands, he said, is still in dire straits, and the governor — and, in turn, his subordinates — are failing to execute.
Smith, who serves as executive director of the St. Thomas East End Medical Center, said his leadership style is predicated on execution, on results.
With more than 30 years of experience in government operations, health care, human services and emergency management, Smith believes his no-nonsense brand of management will help create a “cultural sea change,” not only by reforming health care and modernizing services, but by defanging what many consider a ruthless, bullying administration.
“We can’t be afraid of our government,” Smith said. “People suppress their ability to communicate because of political retaliation against them or their family or their jobs. This is America. We cannot live in a place where people are afraid of their government.”
Smith and his lieutenant governor pick, Hubert Frederick, an auditor and bank manager, believe their ticket holds an ideal combination of government and private sector know-how, a ticket divorced from politics and more inclined to constructive cooperation.
“Our focus is on the business of delivering services to the people,” Smith said. “We want to create an environment for people to come here to invest and live and to have confidence that they’re coming to an A+ environment. And like everything else, there needs to be a timeline to execute this.”
With the Virgin Islands facing an exodus of young people, an aging population and a hospital board many consider awash in politics, Smith said a fundamental restructuring of the territory’s health care sector is needed.
In particular, he said, the Virgin Islands must create a university system of hospitals and invest in its medical school.
“Our health system cannot move forward, particularly around acute care, without investing in the medical school,” Smith said. “We also don’t have a population in terms of the numbers that would make it feasible for specialists to practice exclusively on the Virgin Islands. A university system of hospitals opens up that universe of providers and allows specialists from all over the country to flow through here on rotation. It also opens us up to training Virgin Islanders.”
Smith said a university system of hospitals would not only create a more fully developed health care industry territorywide, but help boost ancillary services, from dining to transportation.
“We could become a medical tourism base,” Smith said. “I believe that because of our location and because there’s a lot of money coming in for infrastructure. We can truly diversify the tourism product.”
Smith said years of financial malfeasance and unfunded mandates have convinced him that there is no “magic bullet” to save the Government Employees’ Retirement System.
Indeed, as he put it, the system is “on the wind down” and alternative options need to be discussed.
“I wouldn’t rule out creating a second retirement system,” Smith said. “The wind down of GERS became very apparent when they stopped personal loans because of cash flow and started liquidating assets. I would look at all options and perhaps move to a hybrid system, which is a combination between a determined contribution versus a determined benefit system.”
Smith said he would establish a task force specifically on GERS to come up with a working formula.
Any solution, he said, would have to bridge the unfunded amount — about $150 million annually — and address the structural imbalance between the number of individuals who support an active retiree.
“The way the plan is designed, you need at least three to four active employees to support one retiree — now we’re about one-to-one,” he said.
Smith also questioned some of the investments made by the GERS Board and suggested the board itself be “revamped.”
“I would do a very hard assessment of the criteria for membership and a very hard assessment of the criteria for executive management that is delegated from the trustees to the administrator,” he said. “The culture of decision-making among trustees needs to change.”
Citing a report issued by the Virgin Islands Hurricane Recovery and Resilience Task Force, Smith gave the recovery a rating of 6 out of 10.
The biggest problem, he said, is the lack of planning and execution.
“We have programs that have billions of dollars connected to them but are not being executed,” he said. “People still don’t have roofs or robust advocacy to get insurance. There’s no bridge program in place to help the elderly or a proper underinsurance program.”
Smith said the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency dropped the ball before and after the storms.
“When the you look at their mission — the coordination, the ensuring that plans are in place and that things are pre-positioned — there really wasn’t much of that,” he said.
Smith added that while a tremendous amount of money has become available, there is little disclosure on how that money is being used or what contracts are in place.
“The first thing that I’ll do is get a detailed audit and accounting of what is being done — what kind of monies are available and what contracts are in place,” he said. “The second thing is we would establish an independent auditor to oversee the spending of these funds.”
While acknowledging that marijuana will be a good source of revenue, Smith insisted that it won’t be a predictable-enough source in the short-term and, as a result, will not be an appropriate source for GERS.
“To get the kind of infrastructure and funding in place for marijuana to be a predictable funding source and save a government system will take about three to five years,” Smith said. “I don’t see that as being feasible.”
However, Smith said that marijuana holds great potential for revenue and will be something “we will get to at a particular point.”
“I think it’s something we need to move forward with in developing,” he said. “It’s going to be a major economic driver in the Caribbean and I don’t think we should be left out.”
Smith described the inability of the public to access information from the government as “tragic” and “criminal,” insisting this would never happen “anywhere else under the American flag.”
He said he would immediately issue an executive order requiring government agencies to comply with the laws surrounding transparency.
“We need to ensure that the people under us are very clear about the fact that this an open and transparent government,” Smith said. “It starts by setting a cultural tone. And I believe fundamentally that the people’s right to know is the people’s right to know and that should be held at the highest level of everything we do.”
Smith also stressed the importance of citizen feedback and input into government decisions, stating he would be open to establishing a citizen’s advisory board as well an ombudsman in each of his departments.
Quarterly engagements with the public and town halls also are important, he said.
“It’s impossible to make the kind of gains and implement the kind of decisions we want without ensuring that the public has the ability to participate in that,” Smith said.
What else …
Smith said a top priority of his administration will be to expedite and consolidate services for those seeking to start new businesses in the Virgin Islands.
“If you come here to open a business, it shouldn’t take you six months to get a contract executed or your business registered,” he said. “I do not believe that the governor should have to sign every contract that comes through the government — I would diminish the governor’s role in executing contracts.”
Smith said he would better integrate banking, insurance, auditing and other financial services under the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.
“If a business is tied to a physical plant, it takes forever to get an inspection for the facility,” Smith said. “I think these things need to be more integrated in such a way that it’s all under the Lieutenant Governor’s Office and made more accessible.”
Smith said that he also wants a properly staffed Inspector General’s Office.
Regarding health insurance, Smith said he is leaning toward making Medicaid an independent entity outside of Human Services because of the size and scope of what it does.
He cited an example of a cancer patient who had to wait six to seven months before they could get their referral process through Human Services for Medicaid.
“There are many people like that,” Smith said. “It’s not a question of funding — it’s the process.”