All senators at Thursday’s Rules and Judiciary Committee hearing agreed that former Senator Celestino White would make for a good addition to the Virgin Islands Port Authority board and discussed their high hopes for the seaports and airports of the territory.
Sen. Athneil Thomas wanted to know if the airports were simply being repaired, or if they were being rebuilt for the future.
“Senator, the people will not believe us,” White said about any grandiose plans for future airports. “We’ve got to be able to do that which is right in front of us first, the low-hanging fruit. We have to take care of that to give people the confidence that we can do those long-range things. The community to which we’re looking for support is never going to believe us when we say all these things are going to happen, when we can’t take care of the things right in front of us.”
White, who has had a 42-year career in public service, said simple things must first be taken care of like the Cyril E. King Airport’s air conditioning, seating, restrooms, basic procedures and parking.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw said both airports have been in deplorable conditions since before 2017’s hurricanes. White did not argue with her opinion.
White said it is his expertise in policymaking and governance, and in advocating for initiatives that benefit the people of the Virgin Islands, that can create the change Virgin Islanders expect to see. Specifically, he named ongoing Port Authority capital projects, such as a $35 million investment in Cyril E. King Airport renovations and repairs, $20 million for the same at Henry E. Rohlsen Airport and $110 million in marine infrastructure projects.
Questioned by senators as to how he would enforce contractors’ construction deadlines, White said he would hold them accountable to their contracts and “be there with my cat o’ nine tails to make sure these things happen.”
White said he also supports the idea of merging West Indies Company Dock into VIPA.
“My position on that would be V.I. Port Authority was established some 50 years ago with a specific purpose to oversee all seaports and airports,” White said. “The Authority functions over both airports and all the seaports but one, which they have no jurisdiction over. So, I personally believe that it should be consolidated.”
White also took a favorable stance on senior discounts, which Sen. Steven Payne Sr. said was an idea the Authority’s board has not entertained. White said not only would he agree seniors should be offered discounts, but that he wanted the board members names who are opposed to the idea.
Payne asked White about his position on charges for parking at VIPA property being the same rate on St. John as St. Thomas. Payne said on St. Thomas there is covered parking whereas on St. John it is gravel, and when it rains the parking lot becomes muddy.
White said while there needs to be a charge for both, the fee should correspond with what customers receive. “If you are going to a class one restaurant then you expect because of the amenities to pay one thing, but if you go to the hot dog stand next door you don’t expect the same thing … so pay you must, but the formula must be sorted out,” he said.
Sens. Sarauw, Novelle Francis Jr., Javan James, Myron Jackson and Kenneth Gittens all voted to forward White’s nomination to the full body. Sens. Payne and Alicia Barnes were absent from the vote.
Additional bills and nominations
Of the six bills listed on Thursday’s agenda, two were rescheduled and four passed the committee. Judge Denise Francois’ nomination for associate judge of the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands was also approved by the committee.
Sen. James said he was pleased that one of his sponsored bills moved forward. It commends Euclyn Prentice Jr. for his successes in the horse racing industry by naming a road after him.
Sen. Francis said the bill senators approved to establish a St. Thomas Capital Improvement Fund was long overdue and will help with “the disparities of St. John having a Capital Improvement Fund and St. Croix too.”
Separately, Francis said a bill that would require the Virgin Islands Bureau of Internal Revenue to create all forms necessary for tax collections essential and will benefit the territory by generating revenue that can go towards fixing the island’s roads, lighting streets and getting ambulances to respond in a timely fashion.
Another forwarded bill, which will raise fines for selling or serving alcohol to the underaged, was supported by Sen. Sarauw, but she said she would like to see a study done on whether raising fines correlates with reduced underage drinking.
The nomination of Francois and all four bills were passed by Sens. Francis, James, Sarauw, Jackson, Payne and Gittens. Sen. Barnes was absent.