Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. would do well to keep in mind Sir Isaac Newton’s principles that explain motion and the forces that affect it.
Everyone knows about Newton’s Law of Gravity, which tells us why we are able to stay standing on the Earth instead of floating around like birthday balloons, but of particular importance to the Virgin Islands is Newton’s Law of Inertia.
It can be boiled down to this: Objects, people, and processes “tend to keep on doing what they’re doing.”
Put another way: They resist any change until they encounter a stronger counter force.
Newton lived 300 years ago, so of course he never met the Virgin Islands Government. But if he had, it’s a sure bet he would have pointed and exclaimed: “See! See! THAT’S exactly what I’m talking about!”
Can’t you just imagine him excitedly jotting notes in his lab book if he gazed upon GERS, which has been in unending motion toward financial collapse from its very beginning. Simple mathematic projections and an understanding of the “economy of scale” and the pitfalls of a defined-benefit system would have shown that the government and workers could never put in enough money to sustain unrealistic payouts forever.
And then, if he looked over at WICO, he’d have said, “Uh oh. I’m going to need a bigger notebook.”
WICO has sat comfortably doing nothing much different from what it has done for the last 28 years, when in 1993 the V.I. Government purchased it from The West Indian Co., a private Danish company, for $54 million.
The purchase included not just the cruise ship docking business but also some valuable real estate: the dock itself and the historic Catherineberg mansion on Denmark Hill above Charlotte Amalie.
However through its inaction — its inertia — WICO has let Catherineberg fall into near ruin, and WICOs sluggishness has made the cruise business less prosperous than it should be. It has failed to meet the cruise industry’s urgent demand for additional docks to accommodate bigger ships, causing the Virgin Islands to fall behind our Caribbean competition. It has neglected its management of the Havensight Mall adjacent to the dock to such an extent that the mall’s owner, the Government Employees Retirement System, fired WICO.
What WICO has done, however, is pick fights. It has gotten embroiled in paralyzing debates and lawsuits involving the adjacent Yacht Haven Grand, GERS, the Havensight Mall tenants and the Chamber of Commerce, plus the Attorney General and the media over access to WICO’s public meetings and records.
WICO owes millions in taxes to the V.I. Government, but when it actually stirred itself to do something about that, the move was a financial mashup that outraged the public and the Legislature and tainted Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s image.
In a nutshell, WICO tried to erase its huge tax debt by paying $14,500 a month in rent (plus maid service, pool service and utilities) on a villa for Mapp to enjoy.
It was a bad idea that ended badly. The governor moved out and declared himself “homeless;” WICO’s taxes were still unpaid and overdue; and the public was disgusted.
Meanwhile, the members of the WICO Board of Directors continued to profit nicely — as they have all through the years. They pay themselves $1,500 every time they meet, and the chairman pays himself $2,000. To be fair, they say they haven’t been taking the pay since last summer, which is understandable because there have been no cruise ships coming to the dock during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All things considered, how should a smart governor apply Newton’s Law to WICO? Bryan must have asked himself that very question before he ran for governor, and the answer he came up with was an important part of his successful “Change Course Now” campaign:
Merge WICO and the V.I. Port Authority.
It’s taken Bryan two years to get to it, but now, per his State of the Territory speech on Jan. 25, he’s making the move.
It’s such a good idea that seems so obvious, it’s a wonder nobody else ever pushed for it.
In contrast to WICO, the Port Authority is a whirlwind. It’s busy, busy, busy using federal funds to expand and improve nearly everything it has, including the two airports, the seaplane terminals, all the ferry, barge and cargo docks, the terminals’ parking lots, the cruise ship dock in Frederiksted, the cruise mega-ship dock in Crown Bay and the adjacent shopping center, not to mention considerable rental real estate in Sub Base.
You can’t defy gravity, but in the V.I. government, you can defy logic — until and unless someone calls out the foolishness. Bryan has done that by emphasizing the costly and ineffective redundancy in what WICO and VIPA do, and he has made himself the force for change that Newton said is necessary to get something moving.
The merger will be complicated and may meet resistance from various power-holders — not only at WICO but also the Public Finance Authority, which is the government’s designated “owner” of WICO.
But Bryan has shown he’s up for challenges, and Virgin Islanders can confidently hope that by the time the pandemic has ebbed enough for all the cruise ships to return, the merger details will have been worked out.
To paraphrase Newton, it takes a big effort to make a big change.
Bryan should be applauded for making the effort with WICO and VIPA. But he also needs to demonstrate a strong enough will to see it all the way through.
If he does, it will serve the Virgin Islands well — not to mention make Sir Isaac Newton proud.