The suspense was palpable on Wednesday as Office of Veterans Affairs Director Patrick Farrell watched the clock tick down to 11 a.m. at the V.I. Taxi Cab Commission in Sub Base on St. Thomas.
The occasion was the annual auction of taxi medallions for veterans of the U.S. armed forces. Just two are issued annually per island, always in December, said Farrell. The minimum bid on St. Thomas and St. John is $20,000, and $8,000 on St. Croix.
It’s a top-secret affair. Eligible applicants place their sealed bids in a double-locked metal box ahead of the auction, which on Wednesday was opened at precisely 11 a.m., with bidders or a proxy required to be present.
“At no time can the box be opened by any single agency,” said Farrell. “It’s a double security. The bids that were placed in here by the people that are bidding have never been seen by anyone else but them. This is the only time now that we’ll be able to see what the bids are,” he said.
The medallions are highly coveted property that not only conveys the owner’s right to operate a taxi business but also may be leased to a driver with the proper licensing, used as collateral for bank loans up to $25,000 or even to bail someone out of jail, said Tanya Paul, Taxi Cab Commission executive secretary.
As the clock struck 11, Paul opened the first lock, with Farrell following behind with the key to the second.
Inside were just two bids – one for $22,000 and the other for $29,500 – ensuring that nobody went away a loser this year on St. Thomas. Auctions also were scheduled for St. John on Thursday and St. Croix on Friday.
On Wednesday on St. Thomas, Paul promptly showed the bid paperwork to each person in the room, all of them masked and socially distanced in compliance with regulations related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“The bids must be seen by all of the bidding participants so that they too can verify what is there, what she said is really actually there,” said Farrell.
However, winning the auction is just the start. The medallions also come with annual licensing fees of $120 and business license fees of $130, said Paul. And while many of the territory’s 3,000 medallion owners lease them out, those who plan to operate a vehicle themselves must complete the Taxi and Tour Operator License and Badge Certification program before they can launch their business.
The program, formerly run by the Taxi Cab Commission, was taken over by the University of the Virgin Islands Center for Excellence in Leadership and Learning, or UVI-CELL, in 2018 in partnership with the Commission and Tourism Department. Beyond the key competencies of taxi operation, the course – held two nights a week for a month – includes lessons in USVI history and culture.
While Wednesday’s auction winners are free to lease their medallions to eligible drivers, they may not sell or transfer them for three years, and then only to another veteran, said Paul.
“To change that is not even the Taxi Cab Commission, it’s the law,” said Farrell, referring to legislation signed by Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in 2019.
The exception is if a medallion owner dies, in which case the medallion may convey to a beneficiary of their choosing, just like real property, said Paul.
“We have beneficiary forms. We really ask people to get one of these forms because, you know, you’re here today and gone today, so we encourage people to get one of the forms or drop off your own form. Have it typed and notarized, bring it in to us and we will put it in the file,” said Paul.
With that, the auction wrapped up.
“This is the conclusion of the 2020 veterans’ auction. Congratulations,” said Paul.