A $150,000 grant from the National Association of Attorneys General will help the V.I. Justice Department investigate the territory’s high consumer prices. Acting Attorney General Claude Walker said in a press release he’ll look into fraud and criminal activity as possible causes for high prices.
And should his investigation turn up those issues, Walker added, he plans to prosecute.
Walker said that while Virgin Islands residents have always been subjected to a higher cost of living, the problem has grown worse – particularly in the areas of food and energy.
Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Devon Carrington said in a press release that while consumer prices on the mainland have dropped, that isn’t the case in the Virgin Islands. Carrington said that in the past, retailers have justified the prices charged consumers, in part, on the cost of fuel on the world market that affects shipping and transportation costs paid by importers of consumer goods.
However, he said, oil prices are the lowest they’ve been for the last 10 years, and periodic surveys conducted by the department for food and gas prices reflect no appreciable change in the prices paid by consumers for these essential commodities.
That said, St. Thomas’s Cost-U-Less store manager Joe Thorne said that he hasn’t seen shipping costs drop. He said that impacts most of the items sold at the store.
“Ninety percent of our goods come from the states,” he said.
Myrtle Barry, manager of E&C gas station on St. John, said she also hasn’t seen any drop in shipping costs. She said when the stock market crashed, shipping prices fell for a while but, since then, they’ve been inching upwards.
She also said that high property taxes figure into the high cost of goods.
Manuel Matias, manager at the Pueblo supermarket in La Reine, St. Croix, said shipping costs are what keep prices up. Since he didn’t have any details on shipping costs, he referred further questions to the Pueblo store in Subbase, St. Thomas. A message requesting more information was not returned.
A phone call to the Plaza Extra store in Mt. Pleasant, St. Croix, also was not returned.
Fuel prices have fallen, and Barry said regular gas at her station runs $3.35 a gallon. She said the price includes the cost of fuel, the cost of shipping it from Puerto Rico to St. Thomas, the 14 cents per gallon road tax that all gas stations must pay, and because her station is on St. John, the truck and barge costs to get it across Pillsbury Sound.
“Plus a markup,” she said.
While theft has often been cited as a cause for higher prices, Thorne said it’s not a problem at his Cost-U-Less store.
Walker and Carrington did not return phone calls requesting more information.