EDA Optimism Runs Into Senate Pessimism

Sen. Kurt Vialet during a Senate committee hearing. (Barry Leerdam photo for the V.I. Legislature)
Sen. Kurt Vialet during a Senate committee hearing. (Barry Leerdam photo for the V.I. Legislature)

Kamal Latham, chief executive officer of the V.I. Economic Development Authority, had it easy at the Committee Economic Development and Agriculture hearing Wednesday – until the senators from St. Croix began asking questions.

Latham told the committee he had restructured the authority, resulting in five positions being eliminated on St. Croix and none on St. Thomas. The staffing was already lopsided toward St. Thomas before the change, with 30 employees there and 18 on St. Croix.

“You have caused a decline in morale,” Sen. Kurt Vialet told Latham. He said the firing of Crucians was “unjustified,” and it was especially unfair in that Latham gave raises totaling over $100,000 to other employees.

After learning that all the positions were eliminated were on St. Croix and all the positions added so far in the restructuring were on St. Thomas, Sen. Novelle Francis said. “I am seeing a trend develop here.”

Two of the positions eliminated were vacant. In the other three, people were let go.

Latham said another person would be hired on St. Croix, prompting Sen. Allison Degazon, the committee’s chairwoman, to say, “We lost five and you are giving us one back … We are letting people go and we have work to do.”

Sen. Donna A. Brett-Gregory questioned the method behind the restructuring.

“We made all these changes absent a strategic plan,” she said.

When Vialet learned the chief financial officer would be taking on the job of managing the 23 acres of property the EDA has on St. Croix, he said, “The CFO is going to be dealing with leaks and mowing the grass.”

Latham was making his first appearance before the Senate.

“I was excited when I joined the agency a little over seven months ago and remain quite optimistic about the future of the territory,” he said.

He spoke about a Vision 2040 Task Force being developed.

“A long-term vision is needed to shape and guide the development of the economy,” he said.

Sen. Oakland Benta was one of the senators not impressed with hearing about all the plans being made.

“You are making a presentation, but you have no direction,” Benta said.

In testimony, Latham touted his agencies efforts to recruit clients.

“During my short-tenure, USVIEDA team members have been dispatched to New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington, D.C., to meet with various companies, investors, and stakeholders to promote the U.S. Virgin Islands as a choice location to live, work, invest, and play.”

Again, this failed to impress Degazon, who noted in Latham’s testimony where he said in the first five months of FY 2019, three applications for the EDC program have been received. Two were new applicants and the third was an application to transfer tax incentives. “The numbers are down,” she said.

Francis asked Latham what he heard when asking the authority’s clients what their biggest challenge was. He said the clients said just “doing business” in the Virgin Islands was a challenge and the infrastructure was also a challenge.

While senators were concerned why the morale was low at the authority, there was also concern why the authority found it necessary to hire an outside firm to analyze what the problem was. In response to that question, Cusa Holloway, manager of the authority’s incubator program, said when staff was being interviewed it appeared everything was not being told, and it was felt by management someone neutral would do better at getting to the bottom of the problems.

The authority is the umbrella organization over the Economic Development Bank, the Economic Development Commission, the Enterprise Zone Commission and the Economic Development Park Corporation. A semi-autonomous governmental instrumentality, it receives $5.5 million, or 90 percent, of its budget from the General Fund.