July 24, 2002 – Fuel pump prices often are as much as a dollar higher per gallon on St. Thomas than St. Croix, where Hovensa refines gasoline sold in the Virgin Islands and elsewhere, Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Andrew Rutnik said at a Senate Finance Committee budget hearing on Wednesday.
"We have a free market," Rutnik said.
The committee also heard from the Human Services Department on its Fiscal Year 2003 budget needs and was scheduled to receive testimony from the V.I. Council on the Arts and the V.I. Lottery Commission in a hearing that ran into the evening.
Rutnik suggested that encouraging an independent seller to set up shop on St. Thomas would bring prices down for the district. Currently, Texaco, Exxon and Domino have a lock on the St. Thomas and St. John markets, which adds a middle-man markup to the price. All filling stations in St. Croix are independently owned and buy their gasoline directly from Hovensa.
Rutnik pointed out that the independent seller would have to have storage facilities for the fuel. But he suggested that a tank could be leased from the Water and Power Authority. He said the tank would need a federal Environmental Protection Agency permit and, "I doubt you will find a new location on St. Thomas that is permit-able."
Rutnik also said that the arrangement would need approval of the local government and, in all probability, the U.S. Coast Guard, since the fuel would have to be transported by sea.
While the discussion on gas prices went smoothly, Rutnik came under fire from Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, committee chair, for his hand in removing vendors from Drake's Seat on St. Thomas last year.
He also took heat from Sen. Celestino A. White Sr. for suggesting that taxi drivers be tested on their knowledge of island history and street locations. "Leave the taxi drivers alone!" White yelled at Rutnik.
Rutnik had said that if the taxi drivers were not comfortable with a written test, a verbal test could be given. White countered by saying that villa managers on St. John also should take the test. He accused the villa managers of taking away five parking spaces on the Cruz Bay waterfront formerly leased to the St. John Taxi Association. In fact, those spaces are available to all St. John residents.
Rutnik said a recent Police Department directive that Licensing and Consumer Affairs stop issuing licenses for safari buses needs to be reviewed by the attorney general. He said that 120 taxi drivers had already received permission to buy bigger taxis. While not all are in use, many are already in the works, he said.
As for the vendors and Drake's Seat, Hansen said that now that the V.I. government owns the property, she will see to it that vendors are allowed to return. The terms of the sale by the Wheaton family preclude such an action.
Hansen was so incensed at what she appeared to view as Rutnik's single-handed removal of the vendors that she told him she was sorry she voted for his confirmation. "If I had my way, you would not be commissioner today," she said.
Rutnik said he was a member of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's task force put together to respond to a lawsuit filed the Wheaton family which claimed vending at Drake's Seat violated the terms of the easement granted to the local government. He said that while Hansen may want the vendors to return to Drake's Seat, many people have told him they can enjoy the view for the first time in decades.
The itinerant sellers of T-shirts and tourist trinkets were relocated to Vendors Plaza, adjacent to Emancipation Garden in downtown Charlotte Amalie. Hansen said the situation is not satisfactory. "They are like sardines, people thrown in an open cage," she said.
The governor's proposed FY 2003 budget for Licensing and Consumer Affair stands at $3.5 million.
If the governor's proposed FY 2003 budget for Human Services reflected what the department actually needs, it would get $8 million more on top of the $63.5 million submitted, Commissioner Sedonie Halbert told the Finance Committee.
The budget includes $29.1 million from the federal government and $34.4 million from local funds. Issues raised at the hearing were similar to those that come up year after year when Human Services takes its turn before the committee. Chief among them is the matter of staff vacancies. There currently are 68, including social workers, Halbert said.
"Social workers are leaving because the case load is very complex," she told the senators. She also said it is difficult to keep nurses on staff at the agency's senior citizen homes. The nurses leave for jobs at the hospitals because the latter work is less stressful and less demanding than caring for elderly people, "and the pay is better," she said.
In an effort to address this problem, she said, Human Services plans to train nursing assistants to become licensed practical nurses.
Sen. Carlton Dowe sided with Halbert on the matter of the pay scale at Human Services. "When do we expect to start paying them like it's important?" he asked, noting that social workers and licensed practical nurses earn as low as $20,000 a year.
Halbert also said her department incurs an excessive amount of overtime because, despite being short staffed, it still has to take care of those in need.
She and her staff received numerous kudos from the senators for doing a yeoman's job despite the chronic staff shortages and under-funding.
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