Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley speaks during a Tuesday press conference about the ongoing Commission of Inquiry reforms. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Despite the recent change in overseas territory ministerial leadership and the pending change of governor early next year, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said on July 25 that progress on implementing the Commission of Inquiry recommendations is continuing smoothly.

“Now that the majority of reviews and audits have been completed, we are now embarking on a different phase of the reform process,” he said during a press conference.

Since the Virgin Islands government agreed to the reform framework in June 2022, work has begun on 49 of the 50 recommendations, Dr. Wheatley said. He added that 24 are complete, and work is far along on most of the others.

“Since then, ministries and departments have been working tirelessly to implement the recommendations according to this plan and continue on the path of reform,” he said.

The deadlines for certain recommendations have caused friction in recent months. In Governor John Rankin’s quarterly reports on the reforms, he has complained of delays and urged the government to speed up the process.

However, Dr. Wheatley has said some of the initial deadlines were overly ambitious and didn’t take into account the fact that the House of Assembly would be dissolved before the general elections or that time would be needed to get public input on certain pieces of legislation.

Premier’s Office Permanent Secretary Carolyn Stoutt-Igwe — who also attended the press conference — noted the demand placed on public servants charged with carrying out the reforms.

Dr. Wheatley said that he and the governor have discussed certain deadline adjustments and that he is awaiting final confirmation.

“While it may be perceived by some that adequate progress is not being made, I’m now pleased that the ministries and departments have submitted more realistic deadlines and are making steady progress on our path to reform,” he said.

The premier added that only two COI reviews are outstanding, both of which fall under the remit of the governor and concern law enforcement agency reviews. Mr. Rankin was not present at the press conference.

One area of contention is the plan to reform the process for applying for belongership and residency. Mr. Rankin has repeatedly criticised what he has described as slow progress in addressing a “backlog” of more than 2,000 applications.

But Dr. Wheatley painted a different picture.

“While it has been reported that there’s a huge backlog of applications, without a clear definition of the word ‘backlog,’ the message conveyed can be misleading,” he said. “While we are working toward providing applicants with a more defined processing period, in my view, we do not consider applications that were submitted since June 2022 — which represents 74 percent of pending applications — as backlog applications.”

Asked for clarification about the ideal timeline for such applications to be processed, the premier said he couldn’t give a specific timeline, but that the process would be a point of discussion at community forums.

He added there are about 245 belongership applications and 469 residency applications outstanding prior to June 2022.

Tax system

Officials also announced at the press conference that government is preparing to launch the Standard Integrated Tax Administration System in September.

This system promises easier access for residents to be able to pay their taxes online.

Financial Analyst Jeremy Vanterpool urged residents who have not yet registered on the system to do so right away in order to ease the implementation process.