Two of the prime drivers of the Virgin Islands’ most important industry took it on the chin at Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate’s Committee on Economic Development and Agriculture.
Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte sent a note at the last minute saying he and his staff were off island, said Sen. Kenneth Gittens, the committee’s chair, even though the hearing had been scheduled several weeks in advance.
Gittens said he was prepared to subpoena Boschulte and the team if need be.
“This is supposed to be our number one industry in the territory. I’m just not seeing the urgency,” Gittens said. “This agency, as small as it might be but powerful, has not only a commissioner at the helm, but according to the budget book, there’s two assistant commissioners, a deputy commissioner, a special assistant to the commissioner, four division directors, and four assistant directors, and somebody could have been here. And to now send a letter at the 99th hour, the last day, to say they are in off-island meetings — I guess everybody is out of town.”
Two alternate representatives for the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission stood in for Executive Director Linda Smith, who has been out sick since early May. They noted problems with the commission’s website — still under construction — have hindered their ability to collect payments. It wasn’t set up to take online applications for new drivers, and, during the height of the COVID lockdowns, there was no functional plan to work remotely.
Commission officers also said they were vastly understaffed. They needed more enforcement officers to ensure taxi operators were in line with the law and their duty as cultural ambassadors. The commission currently has three such officers but could use 10.
Noting gas is more than $6.30 a gallon on St. John, the commission hopes to have an agreed-upon proposal for a taxi rate hike by June 30. If not, they may implement a $2 fuel surcharge.
The commission’s problems go beyond the fuel tank, however. The commission has hired an attorney to review, identify, and suggest corrections to inconsistencies in the laws and practices around its internal governance. The attorney is also helping develop standard operating procedures and an employee handbook for the first time.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw said problems within the taxi commission might manifest where the rubber hits the road but starts at the top.
“We’ve had this discussion over and over again. The issue with the Taxicab Commission is the board. The board should be disbanded,” Sarauw said. “There is absolutely no stability at the Taxicab Commission.”
In May, the senator said, the commission was unable to collect payments because none of the employees was bonded to do so. When the board last presented its budget proposal, it failed to include funding for an assistant executive director and an attorney. Board members’ egos have hindered the hiring of enforcement officers, she said.
“And now you complaining that you don’t have enforcement officers?” Sarauw said. “The commission is in shambles because the board has usurped the power of the executive director.”
Transcripts from commission meetings are secretive and result in board members being paid too much, she said.
“If the commission cannot function — the regulatory committee for the ambassadors of the Virgin Islands — we are up a creek with no paddle,” Sarauw said.
Disfunction alleged in the St. Croix hearing didn’t stop at taxi operations. Frandelle Gerard, executive director of Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism, said her walking and taxi tours for cruise tourists have been hampered by the Department of Tourism’s inability to function correctly.
“The CHANT tour guide program has added value to the St. Croix tourism product by improving the quality of the tour products and increasing the participation of residents in the provision of services. The social benefit of this is measured by the satisfaction of our guests and the increase in employment opportunity for residents of the island,” Gerard said. “We have supported the efforts to brand St. Croix as a cultural heritage destination.”
The 33rd Legislature included funding for CHANT’s operations during the COVID tourism stall.
“I am sorry to report, however, that we did not receive it due to the inability of the Department of Tourism to process our allocations,” she said.
Gerard asked if further funds are allocated, that they not be done through Tourism. Gittens nodded and said he shared her disappointment.
The hearing occurred with the backdrop of a dramatic uptick in cruise tourism promised for St. Croix in the 2023/24 cruise season. Royal Caribbean International has pledged a near three-fold increase in passengers to the big island.
Sen. Milton Potter worried the territory’s key cruise tourism stakeholders were not taking the significant challenges of such a ramp-up seriously, especially after the slow COVID years.
“We’re failing to prepare and preparing for failing,” he said. “Are we prepared for this increase? Are there meetings? Have the meetings started with the Port Authority and the Taxicab Commission? I would imagine with something like that, where we’re going to see such a dramatic increase in traffic, we would be seeing meetings happening around the clock to ensure we are prepared. Is it just me, or are we seeing things somewhat quiet in that regard?”
Sens. Alma Francis Heyliger, Dwayne DeGraff, Janelle Sarauw, Kenneth Gittens, and Milton Potter were present.
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Sen. Janelle Sarauw said the board had failed to fund the assistant executive director position, not that of the executive director.