The Magens Bay Authority board of directors took another shot at resolving the problem of taxi drivers waiting until they arrive at the park’s gate to sort out fares from multiple passengers, but in the end, sent the proposed policy back for revision.
The taxi issue was one of several the board discussed at its meeting on Friday, including requests for proposal for the park’s concessions, installation of wheelchair accessible beach mats and repair of bathhouses damaged in the 2017 hurricanes.
The taxi driver issue has vexed the Authority for some time. Many a beachgoer has waited many minutes in line behind vehicles with 20 or more people while the driver goes person to person to collect their entrance fee, take it to the cashier and then hand them back their change.
“This shouldn’t be happening at our gate, though it has for a thousand years,” said board Chairwoman Katina Coulianos, who said the language “encouraging” exact change needs to be stronger.
“This is the rule. No ‘encouragement,’” she said.
At November’s board meeting General Manager Hubert Brumant had said that despite rules posted on the road leading to Magens Bay, and despite pulling aside repeat offenders to speak with them and even attending V.I. Taxi Cab Commission meetings to hammer home the rules, the problem persists.
The issue came up again at Friday’s meeting as the board discussed a new policy for taxi drivers they tasked Brumant with drafting at November’s meeting. After discussion, they sent it back for revisions to strengthen the language.
“The practice is to encourage” correct change, said Brumant. “That has created conflict at the gatehouse where we’ve had to intervene and even call the police,” he said.
“Yes, don’t wait until you reach the gate to be collecting from your patrons,” said St. Thomas-St. John Island Administrator Avery Lewis, who represents Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. on the board.
“We can’t have peace without accountability,” said board secretary Elliott “Mac” Davis. He suggested that the park admit the passengers in such cases, note the license plate and tell the driver that if it happens again, “OK, you can’t come into Magens Bay because you refuse to comply with our rules again, and again, and again.”
Currently, taxi drivers who violate the rule are permitted to drop off their passengers, but prohibited from returning to pick them up, said Brumant.
Board member Dayle Barry said the solution – drivers should carry a notepad to tally passengers’ payments and change – seemed simple to him. “If they can’t figure that out on their own, they really shouldn’t be coming to the park,” he said.
Barry also suggested that park staff meet with taxi drivers annually to reinforce the rules. “I think everything is an educational practice … so they understand. So when they violate [the rules] we can say, ‘We told you,’” he said.
“We do have a say in how they operate,” said board member Barbara Petersen. “You just have to cover down and make sure you cover all your bases,” she told Brumant.
A new online payment portal, which park staff said on Friday will go live by the end of February or the beginning of March at both Magens and Smith Bay parks, should help alleviate the issue, said Brumant.
The cloud-based recreation management software system from BookKing, a Canadian-based company with clients throughout the U.S., was approved by the board in November. Beyond offering convenience for customers who will be able to pay online, the system will provide data such as how many people are at the beaches on a given day, peak use times, exactly who is visiting and how often passes are utilized.
In other business, the board received updates on the status of beach mats for wheelchair accessibility, as well as restoration of the park’s bathhouse facilities that were damaged in the twin Category 5 hurricanes of September 2017.
While the government held a beach mat ribbon-cutting at 11:30 a.m., Tuesday at Magens Bay Shed No. 2 to celebrate the V.I. Accessible Beaches Initiative, spearheaded by Territorial ADA Coordinator Julien Henley, work remains to be done to complete the project, said Coulianos. That includes finalizing plans with Public Works and issuing requests for proposal to construct accessible parking areas as well as concrete pathways to the sheds and bathhouses, she said.
As for bathhouse repairs being funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, board Vice Chairperson Robert Moron said the schedule for completion has been extended, partly due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, but also to fulfill FEMA regulations for coastal construction that involve the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Coastal Zone Management, the territory’s State Historic Preservation Office – the 58-acre park is also a historical and archaeological site – and the Coastal Barrier Resources Act.
Moron said the project is not at risk of losing FEMA funding, just delayed, and a final decision should be coming in late February or March.
“It looks positive to me. I think it’s just a procedural matter,” said Moron.
As for the park’s concessions, board member Barry said RFPs are being drafted for food and bar services, the retail store and equipment rentals. The current contracts expire at the end of May, he said.
The board came under pressure from members of the 33rd Legislature’s Senate Finance Committee in July to diversify its food and drink offerings to better reflect Caribbean culture and to add a concession at the 22-acre Smith Bay Park, which the Authority also manages and is better known locally as Lindqvist Beach.
The current concessions have been leased by a single family for more than 30 years, according to testimony at July’s Senate hearing.