April 16, 2004 – Licensing and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Andrew Rutnik faced double-barreled action in the Senate chambers Thursday evening as he faced complaints from taxi operators and members of the V.I. Vendors Association.
At the Government Operations Committee hearing, the taxi drivers and vendors took the opportunity to assault Rutnik with a barrage of complaints against his agency and against him, personally. Rutnik sat calmly on the firing line throughout the three and a half hour meeting, fielding questions.
The meeting agenda called for an overview of the department's operations. The tone for the evening was set early on when Yafarra Osjui, a who sells his wares at the St. Thomas Vendors Plaza, said: "If this were a courtroom, I'd have Mr. Rutnik arrested for contempt of court."
Osjui complained about a DCLA enforcement officer issuing him a $100 ticket for playing his radio at his booth. Rutnik said regulations forbid the playing of music. "What would it be like for 60 vendors all to be playing different music?" Rutnik asked. "The rule was established to keep relative peace and quiet in the plaza."
Osjui also said there are holes in the pavement on the plaza. He said ambulances have been called for tourists who have fallen down because of the broken pavement. Rutnik said the vendors pay $200 yearly for their space. With 60 vendors, he said, "that brings in $12,000 annually, and that is not enough to maintain the plaza."
Diane Magras, the Vendors Association president, pleaded for more cooperation from DCLA in getting improvements for the plaza. She said letters had been written to the Historic. Preservation Commission, to no avail. "We want to be proud of the plaza," she said, "but we need help."
Vendor complaints are not new. At a Senate meeting in July 2001, Magras said the vendors had been promised a permanent roof and restrooms years ago when they were moved off the streets of Charlotte Amalie and into the onetime parking area bounded by the Fort Christian Museum, Emancipation Garden and the eastern end of the downtown shopping area. Three years later, no change has occurred.
Sen. Lorraine Berry asked Magras if the association had ever received funds the Senate had appropriated. "They were never disbursed," Magras said. She asked the senators for help in getting federal Community Development Block Grant funding to improve the plaza.
Rutnik said he has no control over the Historic Preservation Commission, which is under the Planning and Natural Resources Department, and he would be pleased to see the plaza under DPNR jurisdiction. "I am willing to turn the plaza over to the department which oversees historical preservation," he said.
However, he was adamant about one thing: the rule against vendors willing their spots to family members. "We have a waiting list of 150 for spots in the plaza," he said.
Vendors are required to operate at their spots 75 percent of the time in order to keep them, he said. "There is one family who has three spots — two of them are owned by people living in New York," he said, and some vendors have been known to lease out their spots for up to $1,000 a month.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the committee chair, said he has visited the plaza and observed enforcement officers "with a very bad attitude toward the vendors." What is needed "is better communication," he said.
Taxi groups object to being under DLCA
Members of the newly formed Taxi in Unity association said they had not received enough advance notice to attend the meeting. However, in a letter to Malone they asked that Rutnik hire more taxi inspectors and that the department crack down on "illegal gypsy taxis." They also suggested the DCLA taxi division be computerized and stressed the need for the training of taxi drivers.
The Federation of St. Croix Taxi Associations Inc. wrote to the committee urging that the DCLA Taxi Division be disbanded, and that a taxi commission be reinstated. St. Thomas taxi driver Omar Beef asked for the same thing. "The commissioner has too many other things to do, and he is allowing the hotels to erode the taxi and ferry business," Beef said.
Rutnik said the taxi drivers are their own worst enemy. They "are getting hit very hard with complaints from the seaports and airports," he said, citing numerous complaints he gets daily about their attitude, and about the prices they charge passengers for baggage.
"The law states $1 per bag," Rutnik said, "and they don't tell people ahead of time. The passenger gets to his destination and finds he is paying $12 for fare and $30 for baggage. The drivers say they won't lift big bags for $1. It's deteriorated to the point where hotels provide their own transportation."
Rutnik said the entire taxi industry "is overrun with problems. I feel very strongly that the industry needs major reforms to save itself. There are some very troubling events going. Unless they begin to reform, they'll lose market share."
He said he has met with all of the taxi associations. One of his main objectives is a training program for drivers. "If you don't want the government to do it, develop it yourself," he said. '"You need a training program; you can't have drivers telling tourists that Fort Christian was built by the English and bombed in World War II. It's not about literacy; it about dealing with people directly."
He suggested having experienced, knowledgeable drivers to ride around with the newer ones, giving them hints, on a regular basis.
"Another problem that everybody knows about is how locals are treated," Rutnik said. "The rules say you must pick up a passenger unless you are off-duty. Locals can stand around for three hours and be ignored. It's a violation of taxi rules."
There also were complaints about the issuance of taxi medallions. Courtney Todman, a military veteran, said he had been trying to get a medallion for three months. "There is a moratorium on issuing medallions now," Rutnik said, "except for two a year for veterans, which are auctioned off." He added: "We didn't make this rule — the Senate did."
Rutnik suggested Todman get a bank loan to pay for a medallion or have a friend advance him the money. "We run the auction in the fairest way possible," he said. "The highest bidder gets the medallion."
Todman asked why the prices are so high. "Whatever the market determine is what you pay," Rutnik replied. "It is a fair way to do it. There's not much I can do. Either lease plates from someone, or buy a medallion."
Freeze on fuel prices explained
Rutnik also addressed the issue of gasoline prices and the territory's new flexible petroleum tax. A 30-day price freeze is in effect until the end of April to contain fuel prices during implementation of the tax. The tax took effect on March 23 but has yet to be collected because some fuel companies have failed to provide DLCA information on their pricing structures.
"We are working with the wholesalers and the retailers to implement the new tax," he said. "We want them to justify any increase they make." On St. Croix, he said, "they are doing it, except for a very reluctant group which refuses to give information."
Rutnik said he is allowing certain gas retailers on St. Croix to change their prices, "but we are monitoring it. They have to tell us the price on the date of delivery. The price could go up, and they could raise it more and make it double. We approve a reasonable amount of overhead. Our Weights and Measures Division has monitored every gas station in the V.I., and very few have violated."
However, he said, one station reported $350,000 in gross receipts on $1 million sales. "It's either a math problem,
or an error," he said. "I hate to accuse them, but gross receipts are based on your gross."
Rutnik questioned the high price of gas on St. John, saying it costs only a penny a gallon to ship it, but the price is at least 70 cents more a gallon than on St. Croix. He said a $50,000 study his department is working on "will be done soon, all the economic data analyzed." As for those businesses that have refused to cooperate, "we have sent out a new set of subpoenas," he said.
Committee members present at the hearing were Sens. Berry, Douglas Canton, Carlton Dowe, Louis Hill, Malone, and Celestino A. White Sr. Sen. Emmett Hansen II was absent.
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