June 28, 2003 – Over the last year the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce has seen some of the causes it has championed reach satisfactory conclusions, while some outcomes have not been so acceptable; and in some instances, the jury is not in yet.
Cassan Pancham, chamber president, told members and guests at the organization's annual meeting on Friday that he was pleased to see the development at Crown Bay be carried out by the Port Authority, as opposed to being a venture of the two cruise lines that had cut a deal with VIPA to develop the area.
The chamber had been vocal in opposing the cruise ship deal because, while the chamber agreed on the need to expand docking facilities, it was vehement in its opposition to allowing outside organizations to control the Crown Bay docking facility and shore-side development. Part of the deal included allowing the cruise lines to decide if they would dock in Crown Bay or at The West Indian Co. dock.
Pancham counted as another success Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's veto of his own legislation that would have given the governor and lieutenant governor substantial pay increases. After a loud public outcry, much of which came through the chamber's telephone lines, Turnbull vetoed the bill after it had passed the Senate. It would have given Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards a salary of $115,000, up from $75,000, and Turnbull would have gotten $135,000, up from $80,000. Senators' salaries would have gone from $65,000 to $85,000.
Not so successful was the chamber's attempt to keep video lottery terminals out of the district. Pancham said on Friday he doesn't see gambling as a viable revenue source and called VLT's the "worst form" of gambling.
A public-private tourism authority is also on the chamber's wish list, and has been for a very long time, Pancham said.
"The V.I. is falling behind in the tourism industry," he said, "and we can only regain our ground with substantial private sector input."
He said the Tourism Department is "dysfunctional" in the way it deals with its partners in the industry, adding: "We want to see the cruise ships coming here first."
He was referring to concerns raised this year among retailers that some cruise lines have changed their itineraries so that their ships are visiting other destinations first, leaving passengers cash strapped by the time they reach St. Thomas.
Pamela Richards, Tourism commissioner, told Pancham at a public meeting a few months ago that she didn't care in which order the ships visited St. Thomas, that she was only concerned that they showed up at all.
Pancham also said the chamber is waiting to see the majority's plan for fiscal recovery. The chamber was not happy with the administration's plan for taxing businesses, among other proposals. "There must be expenditure reductions first," he said Friday. "Then we can agree to enhanced revenues."
Pancham pointed out that the government budget went from $460 million in 2001 to $664 million in 2003. "While every other state and municipality were cutting expenditures, we were increasing ours," he said.
In its annual report, the chamber has developed its own outline for fiscal recovery. It includes:
Aggressive collection of unpaid property taxes.
Privatization of garbage collection and mass transit.
Payment by non-residents of taxes related to V.I. real estate transactions.
Payment of gross receipts taxes by off-island professionals and businesses that conduct business with the V.I. government.
A personal use tax on purchases over $1,000.
The chamber further advocates:
– That the Tax Reform Commission provide that preliminary recommendations be included in the 2004 budget.
– The establishment of an air service task force to be led by the University of the Virgin Islands.
– Pension reform to provide for annuities based on the average pay of a government employee over a period of the last 10 years of service instead of the last three, as is the current practice.
The chamber also offered some new revenue possibilities with the introduction of guest speaker Carlos V. Ubinas, executive vice president and chief operating officer of UBS Financial Services Inc., one of the largest diversified financial services companies in the world. UBS is affiliated with FirstBank in the Virgin Islands.
UBS boasts $30 billion in assets in Puerto Rico alone, where it provides services such as wealth management, investment banking and mutual funds management.
Ubinas said it would be possible by using the Puerto Rico model to develop a capital market in the Virgin Islands which could supplement the government's ability to access the tax-exempt market in the United States. By using the fiscally autonomous status of the territory to develop a local tax-advantaged capital market, the Virgin Islands could issue debt that would in turn garner investment money to fund private capital projects related to tourism such as hotels and attractions, he said.
Getting to that point, Ubinas admitted when asked by a chamber member, would require substantial legislation from a business-friendly legislature, which he said Puerto Rico has — and which, the assembled group of about 75 people affirmed with sighs and nods, the Virgin Islands doesn't have.
Pancham was elected to serve a second term as chamber president. Thaddeus Bast was re-elected as vice president/president elect.
New to the board of directors after Friday's vote are Mario Austin, Cecile de Jongh and Hurdle "Trip" Lea. Returning to the board after being re-elected are Steave E. Bailey, Mike Daswani, Mary Gleason, Judi Nagelberg, Jose A. Penn and Beryl M. Todman.
Pancham said goodbye to other members who retired after many years of service, including Jerry Buckalew and Joe Hodge.
Pancham said he would miss Hodge's pragmatic approach and Buckalew's dedication. Whenever the board got off track in a meeting, he said, Hodge would bring the focus back by saying something like "Remember, they raised the salaries when they didn't have the money."
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