After releasing a summary of proposed special waste fees at a public meeting on St. Croix on Wednesday, V.I. Waste Management Authority officials were hammered with concerns Thursday from business owners on St. Thomas, who said that they are already overtaxed and would be forced – if the fees are approved – to pass the cost on to consumers.
The public meetings on all three islands – St. John’s meeting is Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Legislative conference room – are designed to get residents’ input on the fee schedule, which VIWMA said it will be submitting to the Public Services Commission by the end of the month. The fees, being proposed on imported items ranging from tires to televisions, will help the authority generate its own revenues and become a self-sustaining agency instead of relying on funds from the government, officials have said.
"Our business cannot be run unless we have the ability to charge for our services. Everybody in the U.S. pays for solid waste," said VIWMA Executive Director May Adams Cornwall at Thursday’s meeting at the Windward Passage Hotel. "We have to capture those revenues somewhere and, if it doesn’t happen, we have to eliminate service, maybe even privatize service."
Cornwall said that the fees will help to cover the cost of "education, administration and enforcement," which business owners agreed was needed to help cut down on littering throughout the island.
Cornwall said current enforcement fines bring in less than $100,000 a year (the initial fine for a first offense is $1,000,) which is not enough to cover the authority’s costs – especially since many residents complain about the fee and many judges choose not to enforce it.
But business owners voiced concerns Thursday that the proposed fee schedule does not necessarily cover the cost of disposal for items such as tires, which have to be shipped off-island. Tire retailers attending the meeting, including Rodriguez Auto Parts owner Enrique Rodriguez, said if disposal is not included, then businesses have no choice but to double charge the regular consumer coming in to change their tires – making them cover not only the VIWMA’s special waste fee but also the dealer’s charge for disposal.
If that happens, customers might eventually take their business elsewhere – opting, for example, to order online – and then dispose of the tires in whatever way they can, business owners said. And while Cornwall said during the meeting that hundreds of thousands of tires are being illegally dumped and removed from St. Croix and maybe even more on St. Thomas, business owners said the number will increase if consumers are forced to pay more.
Working off of Cornwall’s explanations, one business owner described the proposed fees as "bureaucratic and difficult."
"The business community is severely impacted by the import taxes, container taxes, gross receipts taxes and others, and I believe as a community, we’re all going to be impacted by this," another business owner said. "We bring in the products, but if you’re going to increase the landed cost of the product, the costs are also going to go up for the consumer."
"Correct," Cornwall replied. "I think the consumers are going to be impacted and we’re all consumers here, but the consumers are also the same people who have a problem with the refrigerators at the side of the road, the tires and poor health conditions, so improving the environment helps supports your business."
Speaking later, Cornwall said the proposal could change before it is submitted to the PSC, but if it is not approved, then V.I. Waste Management would have to shut down most of its services.
"In the current situation we’re in with our budget, unless that gets resolved, we’re going to stop our programs if we don’t collect the fees," Cornwall said. "The only thing we’re going to be able to do is what is federally funded. If we don’t have the local funds, then we can send people home, but that won’t stop the problem."
Specifically the fees being sought by VIWMA once these items enter the territory include:
– $3 for Class 1 tires weighing less than 35 pounds;
– $6 for Class 2 tires weighing greater than 35 pounds;
– 50 cents per foot for fluorescent linear bulbs;
– $15 for televisions;
– $20 for floor stand fax/copier machines;
– $12.50 for computer servers and notebooks;
– $7.50 for desktop print, fax, copy and scan machines;
– $3 for telephones and cell phones;
– $3 for camcorders and recording devices;
– $10 for small Freon white goods and appliances (refrigerator) and $20 for large Freon units. A non-Freon unit (i.e. a washing machine) would be $10;
– and 50 cents per gallon for lubricating oils.
The plan also includes a fee for people to start paying for the disposal of their automobiles. The fee will be 15 percent of the vehicle’s annual registration fee as long as the car is registered in the territory. Officials have said there could also be a grace period implemented with the fees so to give importers a chance to get ahead with their existing inventory.
"We also need your input on that," Cornwall added. “We’re hoping that the retailers would tell us what kind of grace periods are necessary for the products they sell.”
Cornwall said the authority would support and propose legislation that would make the fees exempt from gross receipts.