Paradise. That was the most used description of the Virgin Islands before category five hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated America's Caribbean.
While it's easy to think of St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John, and Water Island — the Stars and Stripes has flown above the islands since 1917, when the U.S. bought what was the Danish West Indies — solely as a tropical getaway, the high levels of poverty, failed public schools, and violent crime is more reminiscent of, say, Baltimore or the South Side of Chicago.
Almost everyone knows that neighboring Puerto Rico, another former European colonial possession-turned-U.S. territory, is bankrupt. However, few know that the fiscal crisis in the Virgin Islands (with a population of about 103,000) is actually worse.
On a per capita basis, the V.I. territorial government's debt of approximately $6.5 billion is higher than Puerto Rico's $70 billion in debts.
Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp goes to great lengths to insist the territory isn't bankrupt, but his own administration admitted it had less than three days cash-on-hand — and that was before the hurricanes. The situation is most certainly worse now, particularly since much-needed revenue for V.I. coffers from tourists and cruise ships has been nonexistent for nearly a month.
So, it should come as no surprise that Mapp asked President Trump for federal money when they met Tuesday. Lots of it.
Make no mistake. The Virgin Islands should get its fair share of federal assistance, but it's doubtful that the territorial government can responsibly administer all the money that will be transferred from the federal treasury.
To be fair, Mapp, a former Republican legislator and lieutenant governor who was once expelled from the territory's unicameral legislature, inherited the fiscal crisis plaguing the Virgin Islands when he won the governorship on his third attempt in 2014.
It's difficult to imagine the territorial government has any capacities now, especially given that it struggled to effectively and competently provide essential services even before the hurricanes struck.
Elections were more like those in third-world countries than the free and fair votes one expects in the U.S. Voter rolls contained the names of both dead people and former residents who have moved to the mainland.
Voting irregularities were so bad that at one point the Democrat attorney general refused to represent the agency responsible for administering elections. Legislators did their weekend grocery shopping in brand new government-plated cars. The hospital on St. Croix constantly struggled to maintain certification. Money in a special fund intended to pay insurance claims after a large-scale disaster was redirected.
Corruption within the territorial police was so rampant that an officer in the security detail guarding Mapp was a drug smuggler. The feds caught him trying to board a flight out of the Virgin Islands with 48 pounds of cocaine in his carry-on bag.
Mapp will likely get the money he wants, not least because the astute politician has been a good partner of the Trump administration in the recovery from Irma and Maria. It also helps that he didn't join the territory's Democrat congresswoman and territorial legislators, most of whom are Democrats, in labeling Trump illegimate at the height of the so-called Resistance movement earlier this year.
But that doesn't mean Uncle Sam should write a check to Mapp, who is up for reelection next year.
Instead, Trump and Republican appropriators in Congress should direct money for the Virgin Islands to the Department of Interior, which oversees the U.S. territories on top of its more commonly known responsibilities for issues like natural resources and public lands.
Interior could then directly distribute the money, ensuring it actually goes toward recovery and isn't mismanaged by the V.I. territorial government.
Dennis Lennox, a public affairs consultant and political commentator, was executive director of the Republican Party of the Virgin Islands. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.
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