If ever the time was right to merge WICO and the Port Authority, it is now.
And Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. should get it done ASAP — preferably before the next WICO Board of Directors meeting, when the board will take away another $14,000 from WICO’s revenues.
Each of the eight regular board members gets $1,500 per meeting. For what? For sitting down for a few hours of looking over papers and making policy and decisions about cruise ship docking and Havensight Mall property matters.
Just in case any board member gets confused or expresses uncertainty about a matter, the board chairman is there to nudge them along. For that, he gets $2,000 per meeting — on top of the $105,000 per year he is paid as the Tourism Commissioner designee.
Is this outrageous? Yes.
Other V.I. government agency boards do not receive anywhere near that. In fact, the members of the Board of Trustees of the University of the Virgin Islands make zero. They serve for free.
The members of the WAPA board meet monthly and make $50 per meeting.
The members of the V.I. Port Authority board receive $75 a meeting; combined with their participation in committee meetings, they may max out at $225 a month.
So what can justify the big paychecks for the WICO board?
Nothing — except a bad “tradition.” Chairman Joseph Boschulte says they’ve done things much the same way WICO did back when it was a private company. Indeed, the board has continued to view itself as private, to the detriment of the public interest, even though the V.I. Government purchased WICO from its Danish owners in 1993.
A long, protracted battle, beginning in March 2017, between The Daily News and the WICO board over access to WICO meetings and records ended in embarrassment for WICO and victory for the public’s right to know. The V.I. attorney general, the V.I. Supreme Court and the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that WICO is a government entity and the meetings and records must be open to the public.
Nonetheless, the WICO board continues to resist scrutiny. As recently as February, WICO would not even respond to a public request to view records that by law should be open for review by anyone.
The WICO board’s performance at its key job also does not justify the board’s big pay.
The Virgin Islands long ago put the economy’s eggs into the tourism basket, and the vast majority of that revenue comes from cruise ships, most of which come to the WICO dock.
The WICO board, however, has allowed the competition to get ahead. We’re no longer the No. 1 preferred destination, and now other islands, such as St. Maarten, are eating our lunch.
The WICO board has failed to react as the number of ship calls sharply declined. Didn’t they notice, at any of their $14,000 meetings, that in 2017-18, WICO got only 118 ship calls from the Royal Caribbean and Celebrity lines whereas St. Maarten got 207 calls?
Making matters worse, the WICO board flubbed a chance to turn things around when it failed to go forward with construction of a mega-ship dock that would have added millions in revenue and boosted businesses.
Now the project appears possibly to be back on track, but it may be too late to regain our status and overcome what we’ve lost to the competition.
Can anything be done to fix this mess?
Yes, and Gov. Bryan knows what it is. He even made it a major plank in his campaign platform:
“Merge WICO with the Port Authority.”
So there you have it — and it makes good sense because it would eliminate costly and inefficient redundancy; it would give cohesion and clarity to a complex series of interlocking operations; and it would put an end to the foolish and deleterious competition and back-biting between two crucially-important government agencies.
This is not to say that the V.I. Port Authority board is a shining example of how to do things right. VIPA lacks effective management of its rents; it lacks vision for the airports and for the role the airports play in satisfying tourists; it lacks effective marketing of its assets, including the Crown Bay mall ... and the list goes on.
What’s truly needed is a merger into a single agency.