St. Thomas’ vendors plaza tenants hold lifetime tenancy, and absentee vendors sublet for many times the rate they pay the government in a "ridiculous" system, acting Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Devin Carrington told a Senate panel Wednesday.
Carrington said legislation would be needed to reform the system.
Sen. Justin Harrigan, chairing the Government Operations Committee hearing Wednesday, asked about the plaza and DLCA’s annual lottery for positions within it. Carrington said there are 64 tenants, all of which are life estates.
"The lottery system … allows those persons who have life estates to vie for position within the plaza," he said. Carrington said it was his understanding that the situation arose from legislation passed some years ago.
Sen. Myron Jackson asked where in V.I. law vendors are given lifetime leases at the publicly owned plaza, and where they are allowed to sublet them. Carrington referred the legal question to DLCA legal counsel Frederick Norford, but said as he began gathering information on taking office a few weeks ago, "the whole issue of life estates was of concern to me, but also the overall state of the plaza. I’m not proud to have responsibility for an estate that is less than standard," he said.
Norford said "there is no legislation that speaks to a life estate, but in actuality it amounts to the same. They draw the 64 spots in the lottery, but there is nothing that says they have to let in anyone from the outside. So they just draw from amongst themselves."
If one of the lifetime vendors dies, they have a list, and the next person on the waiting list gets in, Norford said.
This system has evolved to a dysfunctional state, according to Carrington.
"There is presently going on among the vendors a system, for lack of a better word, of absentee vendors," Carrington said.
"There are vendors charging rentals of up to $1,500 per month whereas we only charge them $200 per year. The bottom line is the whole system is ridiculous … and we need your help," he said.
Harrigan and other committee members also questioned Carrington on the slow reduction of gas prices within the territory. Harrigan said V.I. retail prices still hovered near $4 a gallon while stateside prices have been close to $2 per gallon for months.
Carrington said they are looking into the matter and have subpoenaed documents from the gas stations to verify the cost at which they bought fuel and when. The retailers have not yet responded, he said. The prior administration got information on Hovensa sales, but not other retailers, he said.
Norford said the information in the fall indicated Hovensa had in fact purchased a large amount of fuel before prices dropped dramatically.
Sen. Tregenza Roach asked why they only requested information from Hovensa last fall.
"Most of the retailers were buying from Hovensa at that time," Norford said. "After that, we got information that people were starting to buy from PuertoRico, but at that time most were buying from Hovensa," Norford said.
The committee also took testimony from officials of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Office of Veterans Affairs. No votes were taken at the oversight hearing.
Present were: Harrigan, Jackson, Roach, Sens. Neville James, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Sammuel Sanes and Janette Millin Young. Non-committee members, Sens. Jean Forde and Clifford Graham were also present.