St. John Taxi Troubles Told to Lawmakers at Friday Meeting

The troubles of the taxi industry on St. John got their moment in the spotlight Friday as the 35th Legislature Committee on Government Operations, Consumer Affairs, and Veterans Affairs met in a public forum. About a dozen operators took their seats in the Cleone Creque Legislative Hall as the meeting began a little after 6 p.m.

Committee Chairman Samuel Carrion made the trip from St. Croix, but St. Thomas district Sen. Carla Joseph led the discussion. Committee member Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger joined the panel soliciting comments and concerns from the public.

Consternation over the failures of the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission to serve its business sector has been making phones ring in senators’ offices for several weeks. A contentious meeting took place on May 8 in a conference room in the Senate building on St. Thomas. Taxi operators complained they could not renew licenses and were being unjustly fined while the commission office was closed and the staff could not be reached. 

“We have had several phone calls coming into my office, dealing with the cries and the concerns of the taxi industry,” Francis-Heyliger said.

Additional cries about the commission’s dysfunction came to the meeting. Some drivers said either they or someone they knew paid hundreds of dollars in administrative fees to take the licensure test and then waited years for an announcement of the next test. Others brought documents showing how they followed the instructions to transfer medallions but never saw results.

“I paid $1,300 in June of last year, and I’m still waiting. I called the taxi commission and they told me it’s at the (Attorney General’s) office,” said taxi operator Kurt Richards. 

Former Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft voices concern at Friday’s meeting while Taxicab Commission official Myrna George listens. (Submitted photo)

Former Senator-At-Large Carmen Wesselhoft told a story about her stepdaughter — a military veteran — who paid $500 to take the licensure test. Applicants are supposed to have three chances to take and pass the test, she said, but after 2016 the commission has announced no scheduled test dates.

The former lawmaker went on to describe the hardships caused by the lack of a taxi commission office on St. John. “It’s a hardship when you go all the way over to St. Thomas and then find out you’ve wasted a day because the office is closed,” Wesselhoft said.   

Joseph was present at both the St. Thomas and St. John session. She told the audience it was clear the taxi commission had no working business systems. “My concern is when are we going to address Mr. Challenger’s concerns, Sen. Wesselhoft’s concerns, and Mr. Richard’s concerns?” Joseph said.

Commission Board Secretary Myrna George, a St. John native, and Executive Director Vernice Gumbs attended the meeting and did their best to answer the lawmaker’s questions. Gumbs did not speak during the meeting; at the May 8 meeting on St. Thomas, she barely spoke above a whisper, saying environmental problems in the office made her ill. 

Gumbs used a pen and paper to inform those attending that efforts are in motion to update the office computer system by the end of July. George said she has offered to help St. John operators by taking their paperwork over to St. Thomas, saving them the trip. 

But St. John taxi drivers also had work for the lawmakers to do, when it comes to regulating licensed tour operators and limousine services. 

One driver complained that tour operators are allowed to pay $150 to the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs while taxi drivers pay $30,000 for medallions to conduct island tours. When the matter was raised with DLCA Commissioner Richard Evangelista, he told them to find a senator to sponsor changes in the law.