The Committee on Government Services, Consumer and Veterans Affairs on Wednesday rejected bills to allow Planning and Natural Resources to set mooring fees without Senate approval and to make the V.I. Inspector General’s Office an independent, semi-autonomous agency.
Sen. Sammuel Sanes introduced the bill to allow DPNR to set fees without legislative approval, saying that fees had not been changed in decades.
"If you look at our records, fees have not been changed since the 1980s," Sanes said, Meanwhile, DPNR’s "responsibilities have increased tenfold," he said.
DPNR Director of Environmental Enforcement Howard Forbes testified in support of the measure, saying the additional revenue would allow DPNR to hire more enforcement officers and better vessels, "providing a better presence throughout the territory."
Under current law, a vessel can moor in the territory for 14 days without paying. After 14 days, fees are $5 per foot, annually, for mooring and $2 per foot for an anchorage, Forbes said. He said there is a major loophole in the law because people can avoid the fee by moving every 14 days, and said it would require legislative action to change.
DPNR held public hearings in 2012 on a proposal to increase the fee to $25 per foot, which drew heavy, vocal opposition in public meetings. (See Related Links Below)
Forbes said the increase was too much and instead the fees would probably go up to $10 a foot.
Several senators expressed concern about the Legislature giving up the power to set the fees, preferring to hold onto that power.
“I can’t give you authority carte blanche to raise fees when the normal process was not tried first,” Sen. Justin Harrigan told Forbes. He said if DPNR were to come to the Legislature to request a fee increase the Legislature would act.
Forbes said he believed fee increases had been brought to the Legislature previously but were not acted upon.
In 2011, Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe authored legislation to increase the mooring fees, but it was never introduced or sent to committee.
The bill failed with a 2-2 vote. Sanes and Sen. Neville James voted in favor. Harrigan and Sen. Janette Millin Young voted no. Sen. Tregenza Roach abstained. Sens. Myron Jackson and Terrence "Positive" Nelson were absent.
The committee voted to hold a bill, sponsored by Sen. Clifford Graham, to make the Office of the V.I. Inspector General a semiautonomous agency of the government with a guaranteed budget of at least $3 million per year.
Inspector General Stephen van Beverhoudt testified in support, saying that under his two-decade tenure, officials have tried to shut down audits.
"I have had an administration attempt to transfer one half of my staff to another agency; I have had an attempt made to cancel ongoing or planned audits; I have had an attempt made to place an unqualified individual into a management position," van Beverhoudt said.
More recently, he said he was forced to meet the mandatory continued professional education requirements for the staff by scheduling training in the Virgin Islands only through the USDA Graduate School’s auditor training program "to the point that all of the relevant courses have been used; and I have been forced to request that the V. I. Department of Justice fund the expenses for a V. I. Inspector General’s Office investigator to travel to the mainland to escort a prisoner back to the Virgin Islands. Those are a few examples of major interferences with and attempts to compromise our independence," he said.
Budget Director Nellon Bowry testified against the measure, arguing it would leave the inspector’s office without any meaningful oversight itself and create a "super-agency" answerable to no one.
Bowry said while he was in support of the goal of insulating the inspector general from interference, he opposed the bill’s funding mechanism that would assign one-half of one percent of the overall budget of the government but not less than $3 million as the annual budget of the Inspector General’s office.
The committee voted without opposition to hold the bill in committee. Nelson was absent.
The committee also unanimously held in committee a related bill that would have expanded the scope of audits conducted by the Inspector General.