Richard Evangelista, Gov. Albert Bryan’s nominee to lead the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, told lawmakers Thursday that his appointment signaled a new day for businesses and consumers, pledging a strengthened consumer protection division, a more efficient license application process and year-round compliance monitoring.
Evangelista made the remarks before receiving a unanimous vote of approval from members of the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
Evangelista, a first-generation Virgin Islander born to Filipino immigrants, has a long history of public service in the Virgin Islands. A graduate of Howard University Law, he served in various legal positions across the three branches of government, from legal counsel to former Sen. Vargrave Richards in 1995 to senior policy advisor to former Gov. John deJongh in 2012.
More recently, he served as legal counsel, then as acting chief executive officer, of the embattled Juan Luis Hospital on St. Croix, steering the hospital through four CMS surveys and two Category 5 hurricanes.
As nominee to lead the DLCA, Evangelista said the agency will flex its enforcement arm, issuing citations starting July 1 on businesses who have not submitted the required price lists by the June 3 deadline. Each year, at the start of hurricane season, businesses are required to submit official price list of all merchandise and services. The price lists are meant to protect against price-gouging, especially in the wake of disasters that have seen the prices of essential goods skyrocket amid heightened demand.
“We don’t have the power of the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute,” said Evangelista, who is licensed to practice law in the Virgin Islands. “But we do have the power to issue a cease-and-desist order that can then be followed up with the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution for failure to adhere to our civil enforcement.”
DLCA is also keeping close watch on fuel prices, said Evangelista, beginning with the restart of a biweekly fuel survey. A fuel study also enabled the agency to determine whether retailers were charging a reasonable or exorbitant profit margins, he said, allowing fuel prices to stagnate compared with five years ago, when retail gas prices bordered $5.00 a gallon. The study, however, contained proprietary information secured by a non-disclosure agreement between retailers and researchers.
In response to a senator’s inquiry on fuel price difference between St. Thomas and St. Croix, Evangelista attributed the differences to mode of transportation, cost of delivery and how the fuel is obtained.
Responding to Sen. Janelle Sarauw (I-STT), who chairs the Rules and Judiciary Committee, Evangelista said he believes there are “too many retail gas stations” in the Virgin Islands, causing zoning issues.
“I believe a moratorium should be issued for new service stations,” he said.
In the long term, he said the DLCA will conduct a study analyzing the cost of food in the territory. The study will factor in transportation costs, he said, to determine whether consumers are being charged fairly or exorbitantly. But with the department’s lack of enforcement staff, Evangelista urges the formation of nonprofit groups of consumers who would advocate for other consumers by monitoring retailer pricing and practices.
Leaning harder on the power of consumers, Evangelista said he intends to restart the monthly food basket survey throughout the territory and publish the results. He hopes the results would direct consumers to shop where they can get the best value.
“With the reintroduction of the monthly food basket survey and the bi-weekly fuel survey, each consumer group will have more power than any individual consumer and … drive competition in the best interest of every consumer in the Virgin Islands,” he said.
On the business application side, Evangelista acknowledged that it can take “weeks and months” for business license applicants to get a final nod from the department, but pointed to the need for approvals from other government agencies before a business permit can be issued. To address the time lag, Evangelista said he has initiated an interagency “licensing task force group meetings,” pulling together representatives from the Department of Health, the V.I. Fire Service, the Internal Revenue Bureau and the V.I. Police Department.
“The ultimate goal is to reduce the time for DLCA to issue a business license once all the necessary documents are filed,” Evangelista said.
Evangelista said the agency also needs to step back from acting as a de-facto compliance and enforcement arm for each agency, the first item on the agenda for the first task force meeting, he said. Data drawn from the task force meeting should allow the DLCA to decide a path forward: either continue the current mode of operations or remove some or all agencies currently involved in the business license application process.
If the task force chooses to stay the course, Evangelista said he would recommend a system that would allow DLCA to issue a business license unless an agency reports that a business is noncompliant. If DPNR, for example, reports that a business is working on its environmental safety compliance issues, DLCA would issue a conditional license until DPNR reports compliance or failure to comply, prompting DLCA to either issue an unconditional business license or revoke the conditional business license altogether.
Further down the road, Evangelista hopes to identify funding to automate the agency and implement a document management system. Currently, DLCA is still accepting document submissions in all formats, including paper.
The Rules and Judiciary Committee also unanimously approved the following resolutions:
– A resolution honoring Pastor Thelma Ruby Schade Youngblood for her contributions to the Lutheran Church of the Virgin Islands and the community.
– A resolution commending the Virgin Islands Port Authority for 50 years of service and contributions to the Virgin Islands.
– A resolution posthumously honoring Janice Pemberton Tutein many years of educating Virgin Islands youth and serving as culture bearer.
– A resolution commending Alwyn “Daddy Jones” Baptiste, Jr. for his contributions to the Virgin Islands music industry.
– A resolution posthumously honoring Alwyn “Big Al” Baptiste, Sr. for contributions to the music industry and to the Virgin Islands community.