Members of the Senate Economic Development and Agriculture Committee learned Tuesday that the V.I. Taxicab Commission could implement a fuel surcharge in response to high gas prices. Lawmakers also learned that the agency is not prepared for an influx of cruise passengers expected under a proposal by Royal Caribbean.
According to testimony on Tuesday, there’s been discussion about an agreement by the cruise line to increase passenger load to the territory — by tripling the current rate visiting St. Croix and increasing it by 70% on St. Thomas.
Sen. Milton Potter, who acknowledged that word of such an agreement came during Seatrade Cruise Global’s annual conference in April, asked about transportation concerns.
“Do we have the capacity with regards to taxi drivers on St. Croix to accommodate this increase? Are we just going to wait until the day it comes to find out that it is a disaster- that what was slated to be a potential benefit turns out to be a big bust?”
Vernice Gumbs, assistant executive director with the V.I. Taxicab Commission, gave fodder to the senator’s concerns in prepared testimony.
“The V.I. Taxicab Commission has struggled and continues to struggle financially to recover since COVID-19 restrictions were first introduced. First, our website was not set up to process online applications and payments, employees were not equipped with the resources to work remotely,” Gumbs said.
Gumbs, in addition to logistical issues, discussed staffing concerns. Currently, he said, the staff is comprised of an administrative employee, a single collection clerk, an administrative employee on military orders who has since returned to work, and a special assistant to the director who has been on sick leave for over 18-months and who has subsequently retired, a limited amount of enforcement officers – two of whom have since been reassigned to the COVID-19 Task Force under the V.I. Police Department.
The severity of the understaffing is most evident in the commission’s enforcement division where Gumbs said it would take “at least” 10 additional officers “so that we can beef up those officers on St. Croix and then have added officers on St. Thomas to not only cover the ports but also the streets and the taxi stands.”
Notwithstanding the impending influx of passengers, Gumbs said “it has become increasingly difficult” for the commission “to provide the necessary services and generate revenues which has led to the agency’s expenses surpassing its cash-flow and creating a burdensome workload on the limited remaining staff.”
Funding is a huge issue, he said, noting “unfortunately, the commission’s current budget does not allow us to hire additional personnel.”
Myrna George, who serves as Taxicab Commission secretary, acknowledged during testimony that “we need to be prepared with what is happening on St. Croix.”
“It is exciting news, not only for St. Croix, but for the territory,” she said of the planned influx of visitors, but also acknowledged that there has been little progress since the director’s leave a year-and-a-half ago.
In response to a suggestion by Sen. Dwayne DeGraff to raise tariffs, George said the commission held public meetings “to increase the tariff across the board by 50% but we wanted to get the opinion of the taxi drivers.
“We wanted to know if that’s what they wanted. Essentially, they asked if we could tweak it,” she said, adding that the measure stalled.
With the director’s absence due to sick leave and having “inherited such a broken agency,” the proposal was never finalized, George testified.
“We are still trying to forge through though because it’s so important being we’re having such an increase in gas prices and the trend is that it is only going to continue,” she said. “Right now, on St. John we are looking at $6.32 a gallon so we sympathize with everyone, especially our taxi drivers. We’re asking them to be very patient with us, we are working on this.”
If a tariff can be agreed upon, George said the commission anticipates implementing it by June 30.
If unsuccessful in raising the tariff “we are prepared to propose to the board a fuel surcharge of at least $2. We have to bring some sort of reprieve to this industry,” she said.
Potter indicated the writing is on the proverbial wall noting that without a rate increase in place and shoring up staffing shortages, “we are failing to prepare and preparing to fail. And that is the deep concern that I have right now.”
The committee also received testimony from financial institutions on the state of banking in the territory including the impact of global economic trends and the availability of affordable loans in the territory.
In addition to Potter and DeGraff, Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Donna Frett-Gregory, Alma Francis Heyliger and Javan James Sr. were present. Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. was absent.