Senators on the Committee on Government Operations, Veterans Affairs, and Consumer Protection Monday questioned Richard Evangelista, commissioner of the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, about the high price of food and gasoline in the territory and what he could do about it.
Senate President Novelle Francis said, “Food prices are becoming prohibitive. Our people are suffering.”
Evangelista responded that prices were not far off what places like Hawaii and Guam were seeing. He added that COVID is still having an effect. Francis said he was not interested in hearing excuses and that the territory could not continue to see the prices rise.
Sen. Milton Potter was specifically interested in gasoline prices. He said you could not buy a gallon on St. Thomas for less than $4.89, which, he said is at least a dollar more than on St. Croix. Evangelista responded that his department was gathering data from retailers on what contributed to the high prices and that factors on St. Croix were different. Potter said, “In the Virgin Islands, economic forces don’t seem to operate the same way they do in the states.”
How the Department monitored prices was a question Sen. Samuel Carrión had.
According to Evangelista, his department is still doing Market Basket Survey twice a month.
The survey aims to inform consumers of which stores have the best prices, no matter the brand of grocery items. Consumers may see Market Basket Surveys at www.dlca.vi.gov.
Before his Department can take any action, Evangelista said he wanted numbers. He said, “We might find that grocery stores are barely surviving.”
On another note, Evangelista said, “Our economy is booming.” He referred to numbers showing that the last five months showed a doubling of new business licenses being issued.
Evangelista sees the business license fees as a way to address budget shortfall for the current fiscal year as well as for the upcoming fiscal year. This result would not come around just through the rising numbers of business licenses. He proposes a 15 percent increase for every business license effective this October, with another 15 percent increase effective Oct. 1, 2024.
He said that except for the Alcohol License, the DLCA has not implemented a fee increase for almost twenty years.
The services his department offered, according to Evangelista, suffered because of funding limitations. He names such services as price checks, scale checks, price studies, and enforcement.
Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger focused her questions on the kiosks at the vendors’ plaza in Charlotte Amalie. She said they looked small. They are eight feet by eight feet. Evangelista said the vendor spots at the plaza were always expected to be that size but vendors at the plaza had let their spaces grow to nine by nine, 10 by 10, and 10 by 12. He said it was time for them to slim down again.
Sen. Ray Fonseca asked Hannah Carty, executive director Office of Cannabis Regulations under the DLCA, when her program would be fully legal with dispensaries and everything. She said within a year.
The Committee was scheduled to receive testimony about the Taxicab Commission but after reading correspondence from invited testifier Vernice Gumbs, executive director of the Taxicab Commission, saying she was under medical care, the Committee adjourned.
Attending the meeting were Sens. Diane Capehart, Samuel Carrión, Ray Fonseca, Alma Francis Heyliger, Novelle Francis, Jr., Kenneth Gittens, Javan James Sr., Marise James, Carla Joseph, and Milton Potter.