This is an open letter to Virgin Islanders.

Dear Editor,

Are you prepared for an imminent economic tsunami? The thought of a natural disaster striking our territory is unpleasant. Nevertheless, V.I. residents are prepared for a natural catastrophe. Our territory is located in an earthquake and hurricane zone; we are mindful that a natural disaster can occur at any moment. Mother Nature has taught us many lessons. Moreover, we expect the federal government to assist us in responding to and recovering from disasters.

Are we prepared, though, for or an economic disaster?

A total collapse of the Government Employees’ Retirement System (GERS) would certainly be devastating. It would be profoundly destabilizing to our economy and could inflict immense harm to many V.I. residents. Has the V.I. government done enough to avert such a fiscal catastrophe? Reduction in pension benefits is frightening and not far-fetched. Our elected officials are aware of the GERS crisis which has persisted for decades.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. has attempted to address the matter, but the Legislature has rejected the proposals offered by him. Let’s be clear, it is not my intention to cast aspersions on our lawmakers or to create more anxiety amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Managing the GERS crisis remains a challenge for everyone!

The harsh reality is that GERS in its present form is simply not sustainable. Our fiscal future appears dismal, but there’s hope. None of us in the territory and other places in the world were prepared for the coronavirus pandemic and the dramatic increase in the global death rate due to COVID-19.

As this event is an unprecedented health crisis, scientists scrambled to develop COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines have been proven to be effective in combating the infectious disease. The point here is that there are solutions to any crisis.

Therefore, the purpose for writing this letter is to inspire conversations about viable solutions to the GERS problem. Instead of expressing anger towards our elected officials for failing to resolve it, why not channel our frustration, disappointment and disenchantment into positive energy?

We could choose to be part of the solution or be part of the problem. Are you going to just watch our elected officials “kick the can down the road” and complain that the government isn’t doing anything? There is light at the end of the tunnel! It’s not too late to prevent the demise of GERS.

Vaccines were quickly produced in response to a global health crisis. The lesson is, unless immediate action is taken, a crisis worsens. It’s time for a brainstorming session and an exploration of all the possibilities in making GERS solvent. Are you willing to participate in a virtual town hall meeting, let your voices be heard and share your ideas on resolving the GERS dilemma? Could you work collaboratively, cooperatively and cohesively with the V.I. government in preparation for a fiscal wave? Ultimately, the destruction of the pension system can be stopped but not without sacrifices.

Sacrifices are necessary to avoid insolvency; however, a decrease in accrued pension benefit payments must be equitable. Was there equity in the recommendation by trustees of GERS that without an immediate cash infusion of $195 million, retirees’ checks must be reduced by 42% starting Jan. 1, 2021? Obviously, the cut didn’t happen. If a reduction does occur in the future will it be the same percentage for all retirees? Could it be higher than 42%?

Why procrastinate on this matter? Do you know a way to prevent the system’s unfounded liability from exceeding $5 billion? Are you waiting for a federal bailout or for some other time to do something to mitigate the financial crisis?

According to President Obama, change only happens when “ordinary people get involved, get engaged and come together to demand it.” Let’s come together and demand legislative changes to GERS. A few concerned citizens have already met to discuss GERS reform proposals. If you would like to join them at the first Zoom 2021 meeting, note that it is scheduled for March 31 from 6-7:30 p.m. Details of this first and other Zoom meetings will be announced later this month.

Again, let’s come together and demand legislative changes! Contact Verdel L. Petersen at 340-513-0228 or Abdul Ali at 340-332-1835.

— Verdel Petersen, St. Croix