St. John business owners are preparing for tough times ahead with an expected additional hike to the gross receipts tax as well as continuing Water And Power Authority increases.
Much of the discussion among the 15 people at the St. John Chapter of the St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce meeting on Tuesday evening, July 26, at the Cruz Bay Battery centered on the difficulty of running a business in the face of increased fees and taxes with no relief in sight for sky rocketing power bills.
“We must declare a state of emergency because of this economic hurricane and tsunami combined,” said St. John Chamber Chapter representative Don Porter. “WAPA’s projected budget for next year is $100 million more than 2011. There is no way we can survive with that kind of crushing, repeating increases year in and year out.”
Porter presented his suggestions for WAPA’s improvement at a July Town Hall Meeting on St. Thomas which was co-sponsored by the St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce and the V.I. Legislature.
WAPA must be made to see how important this issue is to the community, Porter explained.
“We must incentivize WAPA to embrace solar and wind usage so they will quit being an obstacle to widespread usage of these alternatives,” said Porter. “If every home in the Virgin Islands installed solar or wind power we could create jobs and keep millions more of oil monies in the VI. WAPA must present a 20-year plan that we can openly discuss and debate as a community.”
Chamber chapter members have also been focusing on improving the existing noise ordinance laws currently in the Virgin Island Code. The group wrote a proposed draft representing what members hope to see included in the new law, which was sent to Government House last month.
As the budget debate continues and government employees adjust to an eight percent pay cut, the noise ordinance law has been placed on the back burner, explained St. John Administrator Leona Smith.
“That bill is still pending,” said Smith. “Because of budget hearings, that bill has not been looked at yet. It’s still sitting on the Government House legal advisor desk.”
“I don’t know a time frame for when that will be looked at,” she said.
Residents must continue to be vigilant about the Waste Management Authority’s proposed user fee plan, Porter added.
“Several months ago we discussed a proposed Legislative bill to institute a tax of 1-cent per pound on everything imported into the Virgin Islands except food and medicine,” said Porter. “The implications of this bill could be huge. This issue remains active even though VI Waste Management Authority were ‘no shows’ at the last Public Services Commission meeting in July. WMA still has plans to implement this user fee which is essentially another tax.”
“We must all be vigilant about this,” Porter said. “We will continue to follow this. It’s on the horizon as WMA looks at creating a revenue stream.”
New fees combined with increased taxes and higher costs, spell trouble for business, explained St. John Car Rental owner Lonnie Willis.
“We’re reaching a tipping point for tourists,” said Willis. “Tourists will choose to go to a different island. Each new fee and each increase brings that tipping point closer.”
“Senators don’t get that at all,” she said.
The recent closure of St. John Eye Care is a reminder of the difficulty of running a successful business in the face of additional fees and taxes, added Norfleet.
“We must get the government to understand how they are impacting business,” she said. “The perception is that businesses can just take it. We need hard number to show that the tipping point is very close.”
The St. Thomas/St. John Chamber of Commerce has made great strides with its Summer Employment and Youth Mentorship Program, explained chamber representative Kate Norfleet.
“The goal is to have each business assigned to one at-risk youth,” said Norfleet. “We’re working with UVI and the Department of Human Services on this program. The key is to reach out to the youth who need it.”
Fourteen students between the ages of 14 and 16 took part in the program this summer and enjoyed a tour and hike with Virgin Islands National Park Superintendant Mark Hardgrove, a tour of St. John and meeting with various chamber members, Norfleet explained.
“This is all a part of letting the kids know business is not bad,” she said. “We must bring these kids back into the fold. We need more young people getting involved with private businesses.”
“It takes each one of us to do one little part, either a couple of hours a week or a month,” said Norfleet. “It’s critical to building the future. We can’t continue to lose our kids to the states; we need real good people to stay here.”
Chamber chapter members are also still hoping to move ahead with Glen Speer designed landscaping at the Cruz Bay roundabout, Norfleet explained.
The group’s hands are tied because it does not have the final projected cost of the project, according to Norfleet.
“We can’t go ahead with a fundraiser or anything until we have some idea of the whole plan,” she said. “Sorry for the delay.”
Landscaping at the recently renovated Frank Powell Park in Cruz Bay is still in the planning stages as well, according to Administrator Smith.
“We’ll be meeting with Department of Public Works to discuss that,” said Smith. “Some funding does remain for the landscaping. The park is not complete yet; it’s still a work in progress.”
The estimated cost of landscaping the park is $15,000 for labor and plants, Smith added.
“The park is unofficially open,” she said. “An official ceremony to open the park is still pending. Contractors are continuing with landscaping and minor work.”
For more information about the Chamber’s mentoring program call 776-0100.