What the Candidates Say: STX Senate – Alicia Barnes

To inform the community on where the candidates stand, the Source sent each senatorial candidate a questionnaire with questions on pressing issues for the territory. We are running the answers in the order in which the candidates responded. (See Related Links, below.) We aim to publish all candidate responses before the General Election on Nov. 6, contingent upon the candidates providing their responses in time.

This story covers the views and planned initiatives of candidate Alicia Barnes, who is running as a Democratic candidate in the St. Croix District.

Alicia Barnes
Alicia Barnes

Barnes served as commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources during the deJongh administration. She has also served as the director of the V.I. Energy Office, assistant CEO of the Economic Development Authority, environmental affairs and energy resources manager for WAPA, chairwoman of the St. Croix District Committee of the Democratic Party, as well as an at-large Territorial Committee member.

Source: The V.I. government has a $100 million-plus annual deficit, currently cannot borrow on the private market and is not paying many of its obligations, to GERS, to WAPA, territorial nonprofits, sewage treatment contractors, trash haulers, health care contractors and more. But the territory has never missed a debt payment on its $2 billion in debt. Half of that is secured by federal rum taxes which pay creditors before the territory gets control of the funds and half is secured by V.I. Gross Receipts taxes which, by statute, IRB is supposed to give to a third party to pay creditors first.

How can the territory avoid a fiscal shortfall that could force cuts to services and government layoffs in order to pay creditors first?

Barnes: We need to do better job of maximizing every federal dollar that we receive by ensuring proper grants management which includes proper documentation and timely expenditures and drawdowns of federal funds. To the best extent possible we should ensure that grant funds are not on a reimbursable basis but rather on an advance basis. We should relieve the burden on the general fund by ensuring proper payroll accounting, allowing employees who are paid by federal funds to receive funds directly from the grant. In many instances the grant funds reimburse the general fund and there is a lag in the process.

We should also maintain a current indirect cost rate which will again reduce the burden on the general fund by having a mechanism in place that would allow specific overhead/administrative costs to be charged to federal grants. Additionally we can significantly reduce energy consumption costs by contracting with an ESCO (Energy Service Company) to retrofit government buildings with energy efficient/conservation measures. The retrofits will be financed by a portion of the cost savings realized from reduced energy consumption. This model has been successfully utilized by the Federal Government.

Finally, there are several proposed revenue generating measures such as home porting and trans-shipment that have been enacted, but never implemented. With the recent execution of the ArcLight/Limetree Bay Agreement we should leverage our assets in this regard and seriously explore the feasibility of pursuing further public/private partnerships to allow for the development of home porting and trans-shipment industries on St. Croix.

Source: What is your fiscal and economic plan?

Barnes: Effective economic development requires a comprehensive and strategic planning approach. We have to look at the entire economic structure of the US Virgin Islands as a system of interrelated parts, (banking regulations, energy, education, vocational education, workforce development, healthcare, and public safety,) and identify how each impacts the other. We need comprehensive legislation that will facilitate Strategic Economic Development Planning. The components of which should include, but should not be limited to:

– Streamlining of government processes: Government agencies tasked with permitting and licensing must streamline processes and codified timelines, especially for projects with a significant capital investment that will expand our tax base and create jobs;

– An integrated agriculture Industry: “Health is Wealth” Many of the ailments, disorders, and diseases affecting us today can be directly linked to the foods we eat. Foods loaded with preservatives and little to no nutritional value may contribute to Alzheimer’s, dementia, and attention deficit disorders. We need to invest in and create an agriculture infrastructure that would allow us to grow our own produce to provision local supermarkets, restaurants, schools, cruise ships, as well as to export via processing and packaging facilities;

– A comprehensive land and water use plan: The practice of spot zoning and variances must be a thing of the past. It is very difficult for development to proceed without assurances of future land and water use applications. In the past, comprehensive land and water use planning was viewed as a preservationist tool used to stymie growth and development. However, the adoption of a comprehensive land and water use plan should be a component of an overall economic development strategy. Such a plan will create an environment for growth where development is executed prudently and in a manner that can be sustained by our cultural and natural resources.

– Small, non-polluting manufacturers: An opportunity exists to attract small non-polluting manufacturers that have been displaced from other locations throughout the region due to the impacts of hurricanes. The trans-shipment potential of St. Croix coupled with its connectivity bandwidth are underutilized assets that can be leveraged with additional incentives to attract new businesses, create jobs and expand our tax base.

Source: Many young Virgin Islanders are seeking educational and financial opportunity outside of the territory. What plans will you execute to encourage those that remain to stay, and to get those that have left to return?

Barnes: I am a proud Virgin Islander, a product of what these islands represent! It bothers me that there appears to be such an exodus of Virgin Islands’ talent. One of my goals as an elected official of the first-branch of government is to ensure talented Virgin Islanders are encouraged to let their skills and abilities be on full display in their homeland. This can be done with proper workforce development to have an adequate complement of professionals and skilled workers to satisfy the local job market. We must also seriously consider banking reform to give entrepreneurs access to working capital for small business ventures. Our zoning laws should be further revised to allow for certain home-based businesses to minimize overhead. There needs to be an active recruitment and retention initiative which must also include succession training to allow for persons to transition into retirement allowing opportunities for young Virgin Islanders while maintaining institutional knowledge where needed.

Source: What would you propose to address the collapse of GERS in light of the $3 billion-plus shortfall and projected exhaustion of all funds between 2020 and 2023?

Barnes: The GERS needs a capital infusion of money to jump-start its recovery. It must be found because the consequences of its failure would be tragic to the territory – economically and emotionally. We must re-visit the recommendations submitted by the professionals who have reviewed the current state of the system, and listen to those who have a fiduciary responsibility for its success and survival. We need to employ a combination of short-term and long-term measures to guarantee that every government retiree who is owed a pension will receive a pension. We must investigate a more aggressive investment strategy to increase the rate of return of the portfolio above our target rate of seven percent through the use of hedging and other strategies. We should explore leveraging our fixed assets instead of liquidating them to make annuity payments; we have the option to borrow against our fixed assets and the investment portfolio to address our short-term liquidity challenge. If the rate of return on our investments is higher that the interest paid on borrowing, then we must explore the borrowing option. Additionally we should develop a hybrid approach that includes both benefit-defined and benefit-contribution options to provide better equity and longevity.

As a last resort, we should explore reasonable allowances to transition to a hybrid public/private employee by making appropriate revisions to the local GERS statute. In so doing, we may fall under the ERISA statute, and if GERS then goes bankrupt, employees’ annuities will continue to be paid by the Federal Government’s Pension Guaranteed Corporation. This will of course require input and assistance from our delegate to Congress to work with the federal government to explore this as a viable option within the framework of the rules and regulations that govern public pension funds.

Source: How will you help make government more transparent?

Barnes: Transparency in conducting the people’s business is tantamount in achieving trust and accountability in a democratic society. The current laws are sufficient in establishing transparency in government, and each citizen must exercise their rights in this regard, by attending legislative hearings, public meetings, demanding answers to their questions, and being active participants in the process. If I am successful in becoming a member in the first branch of government, I will ensure that the people who entrusted me with representing them have access to me and my office, via regular constituent and town hall meetings. The Legislature has an overarching responsibility of executive branch oversight to be able to effectively fulfill its mandate of enacting laws, appropriating funds, and identifying new revenue generating measures. In this regard, transparency can be achieved by exercising the oversight authority in scrutinizing departments, agencies, and semi-autonomous entities are held accountable in executing their mandates and aligning budgets accordingly.

Source: How do you feel about legalization of marijuana and why?

Barnes: Marijuana must first be legalized for medicinal purposes. This will pave the way for recreational use in the near future. The benefits of the legalization of medical marijuana are countless. Preliminary findings indicate benefits in treating cancer, seizures, Alzheimer’s, PTSD, etc. A medical marijuana industry will create new revenue by increasing tourism, and expanding the job market and tax base. The key is that it be done comprehensively with input from ALL stakeholders.

Source: What can you as an elected official do to help alleviate violent crime in the territory?

Barnes: Education! Education! Education! Violence is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed sooner, rather than later. Education is key for most crime prevention/reduction measures. We should focus on developing an educational system that’s second to none, addressing issues affecting the resolution of our mental health patients, and a Workforce Development plan, so that there are more viable opportunities for our youth. The successful education of our youth from elementary through secondary remains key. According to the most recent USVI Kids Count Data, “V.I. teens are facing tough choices. While some are making better decisions – such as avoiding teen pregnancy – others are falling through the cracks. Data provided by local partners allow for tracking over time the number of teens who are not completing high school, not working, and who are involved in criminal activity. The future is at stake for these young people, and the time is now to ensure it is bright.”

The data also state that one third of the children living on St. Croix are living in poverty and enter school with below average learning skills. This is heartbreaking. We need to create opportunities and an environment for ALL of our children to succeed. Most experts and stakeholders agree that the time is now to re-establish the Commission on Youth and stop the “school to prison” pipeline. I am committed to working with the Departments of Education, Human Services, Labor, Health, and Sports, Parks, & Recreation, along with the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, the Boys and Girls Clubs, and the St. Croix Foundation to identify sustainable funding for the re-establishment of the Commission on Youth. This for me is more than a campaign promise. It is a mission. Together we must save our children.

Source: How do you see your role in overseeing government agencies?

Barnes: The Legislature is the first branch of government with an overarching responsibility for oversight, as previously mentioned. As the first branch of government, the Legislature must exercise its oversight authority by maximizing the Post Audit Division’s analyses of department/agency performance and aligning resources accordingly. No more rubber-stamping of the proposed executive budget, but instead the preparation of a budget by the Legislature based on prioritized policy objectives and department/agency performance. If government agencies are failing to deliver the services demanded and required by law, and are unable to offer adequate justifications for doing so, their budgets must be reviewed and determinations made. We must become more fiscally accountable to the people of the Virgin Islands!

Source: Why are you running and why should voters choose you instead of another candidate?

Barnes: “To whom much is given, much is required.” I am a proud Virgin Islander – a product of what these islands represent. I care deeply for our islands and our people. I have come to realize that change MUST occur if we are to be the island paradise that we truly are. The change that must occur requires tough decisions that must be made by capable public servants for ALL the people of the Virgin Islands. I have prepared myself to be such a public servant. I come from humble beginnings and hold no illusions of grandeur. My father was born and raised in Frederiksted. He was a fisherman, firefighter, taxi driver, lifeguard, and proud Army Veteran. My mother migrated to St. Croix from Gingerland Nevis in the 1960’s as a bonded worker seeking economic opportunities. I learned the value of hard work from my parents and am eternally grateful to them. I am running, as a candidate, to do the “people’s business” in an empathetic and decisive manner garnering my professional and personal experiences. I want to do my part in creating an environment where opportunities to improve our quality of life (gainful employment and entrepreneurial opportunities ,healthcare, home ownership and access to decent housing, etc.) exist for all Virgin Islands residents.

Source: What will you do to mitigate the effects of climate change on the territory?

Barnes: Ensure proper implementation and enforcement of the environmental laws and rules and regulations of the Virgin Islands. This will include providing the requisite resources to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the Waste Management Authority to fulfill their respective mandates. Specifically provide adequate funding for robust coastal zone management, point and nonpoint source pollution, air ambient and water quality monitoring programs. Work with the Department of Education and Board of Education for the development and implementation of a K-12 environmental stewardship curriculum. Facilitate the implementation of a comprehensive land and water use plan and an integrated waste management plan that includes waste reduction and reuse.

Source: What is your plan to improve the schools and the quality of public education in the territory?

Barnes: I have pride in our islands and our people. I am a product of the Virgin Islands educational system. Our educational system must address the needs of our children, while utilizing current proven systems to educate them. This should be done in environments conducive to learning, with minimal distractions. Students should not have to worry about temperature conditions, hunger issues, or teacher absences. The majority should crave learning. Good teachers can do this. At the same time, those charged with the critical responsibility of educating our most important resource, should be properly compensated for doing so. I will do my utmost best to ensure that education professionals are fairly and properly compensated for the task they perform. At the same time, performance evaluations should be conducted on an annual basis. They are true professionals! In addition, not all students are to be placed on an “academic” track, but need the foundation of basic quality education. As they approach middle school, determination should be made to pursue “academic”, “vocational”, or “other” track. Effective and motivated educational professionals are required, not only teachers but guidance counselors, as well. We must explore what other successful countries have done. One is our Caribbean neighbor, Barbados, whose educational system is ranked in the top five of the world. The Department of Education’s budget is approximately $100 million. The department must be re-engineered to ensure that monies are spent directly on educating our children with the foundational tools needed for critical thinking and problem solving. Virgin Islands Pride must be integrated in the K-12 curricula via comprehensive Virgin Islands history and civics. Our children must learn from an early age who they are as Virgin Islanders, the great legacy they must continue, and the civic responsibility required in doing so.

Source: How will you ensure that adequate funding is put toward healthcare services in the territory?

Barnes: We need to maximize the use of federal dollars to help pay the territory’s healthcare cost. Now that we are receiving hundreds of millions more dollars in medicaid funding, we need to aggressively expand the Medicaid roles, especially since Congress has waived the territory’s local match for the next two years. We need to guarantee that our hospitals, Cardiac Center and Cancer Center remain operating in the territory, so our people can receive these much needed specialty services. Because the local government is challenged to sufficiently fund these institutions, we must consider legislation for public/private partnerships with the government retaining at least 51 percent ownership. This will allow well known medical providers like Cancer Treatments Centers of America, the Hospital Corporation of America, or the Loma Linda Heart Institute to develop joint ventures with our local facilities. These partnerships will bring greatly needed financial resources and personnel to help shore up our healthcare institution. With these national reputable companies on board, the V.I. will be better poised to capitalize on the medical tourism market. I support increased funding for mental health and will work to ensure that it is a fully funded entity.

In the short term I will work for adequate funding to hire case managers that connect individuals with the right services and to create an effective transitional program for individuals with mental illness. In the long term, I will work for funding to create a multi-tiered system of care to include day treatment centers, outpatient services, and recovery residential programs.

Source: A significant amount of post-hurricane recovery on St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas was made possible by non-profit organizations and volunteer groups. But private donations are down and budget deficits make more funding difficult. What would you, as a legislator, suggest to help support these community groups?

Barnes: I believe every effective community is comprised of three sectors – the private sector, the public sector, and the volunteer sector. Each sector has a critical role to play in a community’s success, and each must be given the proper resources to be effective. The Public Assistance Office was created to assist in monitoring all grant money provided to the territory. The role and function of this office may need to be expanded, and I would have discussions with the leadership to determine if this would be effective. I am of the opinion that if we were to dedicate staff and resources to identifying available public assistance dollars and various grants being offered, as well as resources to monitor and account for the funding received, the office would pay for itself based on the additional funding received. This is something I would like to explore by speaking with the stakeholders involved.

Source: What do you as a senator believe should be priorities for infrastructure, parking and walkability on St. John? On St. Croix? On St. Thomas?

Barnes: Planning! Planning! Planning! The territory, as a whole, has moved away from planning. It is proven that those who fail to plan, plan to fail. We must revisit a comprehensive land and water use plan for each one of our beautiful islands. As you are aware, as commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, this was an area I passionately advocated for. The time has come. Not only does our infrastructure need upgrading, but with what we hope will be many more visitors soon coming to our lovely islands, we must be prepared to receive them. I envision a Virgin Islands with uncluttered walkways, free-flowing roadways, designated bike paths, placid parks, sparkling beaches, pristine park-and-ride stations, reliable and efficient electricity, crystal potable water, and friendly, caring residents. Proper planning can ensure this on each one of our beautiful islands.

Source: The Revised Organic Act of 1954 gives the V.I. Legislature the power to establish a USVI constitution by any means it chooses. Currently, the territory cannot charge different property tax rates to different parts of the territory. The territory could set up property tax districts if it enacted a constitution. What should the Legislature do in regards to a USVI constitution?

Barnes: I am in favor of a USVI Constitution as a matter of self-determination. I truly believe that our political evolution and maturity as a people are inherent in our self-identity, internal autonomy and governance.

Disclosure: The reporter assigned to this series recently began working in the office of Senator Marvin Blyden and the questions were developed before she started the position. All candidates have an opportunity to participate and the candidates control their responses.