Sen. Janelle Sarauw (IND-STT) has run out of patience with the Virgin Islands Carnival Committee, an agency she said has proven itself unworthy of handling the St. Thomas flagship cultural event and is now threatening to strip of its $500,000 annual funding.
“The Carnival Committee’s continuous practice of non-compliance and lack of fiscal transparency and responsibility continues to degrade the trust of the public as it relates to hosting and marketing one of the most monumental aspects of Virgin Islands culture – our Carnival,” Sarauw said.
The VICC received multiple chances to get its act together, Sarauw said. She initially gave them notice on April 23 to appear before the Senate Committee on Workforce Development Consumer Affairs and Culture, which she chairs, on May 23 in an effort to give VICC officials sufficient time to gather requested documents and financial information. The night of May 22, the VICC sent a letter that they would not be able to appear the next day.
The status update hearing was immediately rescheduled for June 25, at 1pm per VICC’s request. The day before, VICC officials requested to move the hearing up to 10 a.m., causing the senate committee members to rebook flights from St. Croix on short notice. When the VICC board members did appear, they still did not have the requested financial documents.
This forced the Senate committee to issue a subpoena to VICC Chairman Kenneth Blake on July 12. Among the subpoena’s demands are copies of all contracts executed by the VICC, bank statements for all bank accounts, credit card statements, and a list of all sponsors and donations dating back to fiscal year 2015.
“In an effort not to embarrass them, I only started from the fiscal year 2015,” she said. “I didn’t go back to 1999, 1998. We went only for three fiscal years.”
The VICC missed the July 20 deadline. Sarauw indicated that Blake may have been unable to receive the subpoena because he ostensibly was seeking medical attention off-island with no definite return date. As of July 30, however, Sarauw still has not received the requested documents nor any correspondence from the VICC board, she said, leaving her with “no other recourse but to resolve this through legislation.”
Sarauw proposed legislation that will defund the VICC and transfer its responsibilities to the Department of Tourism.
“At this point now, I’m like, this is the first branch of government. You’re going to come before the Senate budget hearings to request the same $500,000 from the miscellaneous budget and you don’t feel that it’s imperative to at least report to the body how you’re going to spend the government funds?”
In addition to cash from the general fund, the VICC also enjoys in-kind services such as free use of the Fort Christian parking lot and the Lionel Roberts Stadium, Waste Management and Public Works services, and VI Police Department officers on duty.
“There’s so many factors involved, and the constant disrespect of this branch can no longer work,” said Sarauw.
Besides defunding of the Carnival committee, the bill, if passed, would create a new Division of Festivals within the Tourism Department, created for the purpose of managing not only the St. Thomas Carnival, but its St. Croix and St. John counterparts as well. The new division would oversee a total of $1.5 million in festival funding that will be kept in an escrow account for each island, to be expended solely through the Division of Festivals.
To preserve the unique flavor of each island’s festival celebrations, a different festival director would be assigned each for St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John. This entails hiring more personnel by the Department of Tourism, something that Sarauw is confident the annual funding can support. The bill also allows the Tourism Department to create ad hoc carnival committees.
“Because carnival still needs to belong to the people,” she said. “The many volunteers that participate and volunteer with the VICC, they have the ability now to head over to Tourism and sign up as a volunteer for whatever committee that they want.”
According to Sarauw, the carnival celebrations need greater transparency and accountability, and the Tourism Department already has the infrastructure and a good track record of marketing and promoting the territory’s cultural attractions.
“The Commissioner [of Tourism], it was a challenge for her, it’s a new venture for her but she seemed very much open,” said Sarauw. “So we’re not going to pass legislation that will shortchange our people, but we’re actually trying to amp up our product.”
When asked if the current VICC officials can do anything to change her mind, Sarauw flatly said no. The bill is already being reviewed by the Legislature’s legal counsel, said Sarauw, and should be out to the appropriate senate committee within two to three weeks.