June 16, 2006 – A bill to reinstate the V.I. Taxicab Commission sailed through the Government Operations and Consumer Affairs Committee meeting Friday after representatives from the taxi industry told senators they were "being taken advantage of" by the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs. Grievances included high tariff rates, an excessive inspection schedule and a lack of representation for taxi drivers' interests.
"The commission was created to enhance the taxi industry," Louis Industrious, a member of the V.I. Taxi Association, said. "But it seems like nobody cares about that. All the department wants to do is hand down rules and raise fees."
Industrious said that since the commission was "disbanded" and put under the department, DLCA officials have "not listened to the concerns or needs of the drivers."
Celestino A. White, the bill's sponsor, added more fuel to the fire by stating that the measure further seeks to regulate the power of DLCA Commissioner Andrew Rutnik, who White said is "the judge, jury and prosecutor" when it comes to taxi matters. "We need to move the commission away from the man who rules all," he said. "Someone [referring to Rutnik] who said that taxis have to be inspected two times every year so he can make an extra $60,000."
White also blamed Rutnik for the excessive number of taxi driver licenses issued and noted that the Senate was forced to pass a bill imposing a moratorium on the issuance of taxi licenses in order to cut down on the number of cab operators in the territory. "There are over 5,000 licenses out there," he said.
White added that he has also received complaints about taxi drivers who are unable to "speak English" or who take passengers to the wrong destination. "You get in the cab to go to Frenchman's and you end up in Fortuna," he said.
"This is a case of fact and fiction," Rutnik responded. "You've heard the fiction. Now I'll give you the facts."
Rutnik said the commission was disbanded by the Legislature in 2000, after concerns arose about issues such as missing medallions [a valuable license conferring the right to operate a taxi] and "illegal transactions." He added that commission members were "often unable" to maintain a quorum, making it hard for the organization to render decisions or effectively regulate the industry.
He said since 2000, the taxi industry "has been good," with the department putting various "procedures in place" – such as a tariff "to help the drivers" subsidize the cost of gas.
Addressing some of White's other concerns, Rutnik also said that V.I. law mandates that inspections be conducted twice a year. "And that law came as a result of legislation," he said. Rutnik added that an audit completed by the Inspector General's office in 2004-2005 revealed that the department was not following the V.I. Code by conducting one annual inspection.
Rutnik also said that the moratorium on taxi licenses has caused a problem for taxi drivers who want to transfer their medallions to their children or other relatives. "The medallion is useless unless they have a license to operate," he explained. "And it's not possible to get them a license with the moratorium in place."
Rutnik added that he had also received complaints about drivers taking passengers to the wrong destination. "To solve that, all you have to do is repeal the law that prohibits the government from making training mandatory for taxi drivers," he said. "I think that would go a long way in helping some of our operators out."
Adding to Rutnik's statements, Judith Wheatley, owner of Wheatley Taxi Services and Tours, said the problem lies with the "directors" of the taxicab division.
"Once the commission was moved under Licensing, we were supposed to have a director," she said. "His name is Mario Carroll. And since he's not doing anything, I think a sanction should be imposed on the directors. Rutnik is just supposed to be overseeing the operation – we have to work on cleaning up the division itself."
Rutnik added that he had received complaints that Carroll "did not like traveling to St. Thomas."
"But I can't make someone do that," Rutnik said, adding that Carroll was appointed by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. "But I have sent letters and recommendations to the governor about how to deal with the matter."
Wheatley also told senators that laws set up to regulate the taxi industry have to be enforced. "For example, the law states that an operator can only get a taxi license after they have had a valid V.I. driver's license for three years," she said. "There are operators out there who have only had their license for a year or less. Let's also talk about the gypsy taxis. There's no one cracking down on them for operating illegally. But there are people cracking down on us – the ones who are following the laws."
While senators agreed that the division needed "more uniformity," they said they had also received complaints about taxicab service from visitors to the territory.
"I wish there was a way to get the division to function on its own without outside people coming in," Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said. "Maybe the commission would be able to find a way to make the taxi product more attractive."
Senators subsequently approved the bill, which moves on to the Rules Committee for a vote.
Present during Friday's meeting were Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Louis P. Hill, Malone, and Terrence "Positive" Nelson; along with noncommittee members Sen. Liston Davis and White.
Sens. Craig W. Barshinger and Ronald E. Russell were absent.
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