V.I. Port Authority officials revealed that only one pilot boat is operational in each district, and rather than investing in maintenance or buying new boats, the agency has been contracting with a third party vendor to provide backup services with at least one boat that the port sold years ago after deeming it “unfit for service.”
VIPA acting Executive Director Damian Cartwright spoke candidly about the status of the Port’s marine fleet at a board meeting on St. Thomas last week and after deeper probing from board members, acknowledged that one of the boats being contracted out on St. Croix was put on the auction block after the authority decided it wasn’t suitable for rehabbing. The port’s pilots “hated it, found that the design was poor, and that it was dangerous,” Cartwright said, adding that there was “no love lost” by the staff when the vessel was sold.
But buying a new boat can cost upward of $1 million and while Cartwright said VIPA is looking at fitting in the purchase of one or two new pilot boats during the next budget cycle – with the funds possibly coming from insurance proceeds – many board members said right now, finding an in-house solution for more frequent maintenance and upkeep might be a good solution.
On St. Croix, Cartwright said the port has gotten an estimate for the rehabbing of the Claude Berry II, and is currently sourcing quotes from local contractors. The pool is slim, however, and some work might have to be done internally, but the assessment includes the repowering of the vessel, along with some structural upgrades, he said.
Asked by Attorney General designee Denise George Counts why the boat hasn’t been operational for about two years, Cartwright added that there was a change in management and leadership on the marine side in St. Croix over the past few months, and there was a push to look at cost-saving measures, such as third-party contracting, instead of spending more money on expensive repairs.
Meanwhile, on St. Thomas, there is also only one operational pilot boat. Cartwright said that the other two in the fleet need “significant work,” including the retrofitting of engines, which could cost $75,000 to $95,000 or more if the port was to move forward with repairs right away. VIPA is looking to bring in a marine surveyor to see if it is better to buy or fix, he said.
Captain Matthew Berry, the port’s marine manager for St. Thomas-St. John, added that the newer boat on St. Thomas is constantly running throughout the day, which ramps up the maintenance cycle.
“We’re almost at servicing and that shouldn’t happen for three or four years, but the boat has been running every day,” Berry said.
Board member Lee Steiner suggested having an engineer or skilled diesel mechanic on staff to handle the day to day issues would be beneficial, to which Berry also agreed.
While Cartwright said the pay scale offered by the port for diesel mechanics isn’t up to industry standard, board member Kevin Rodriquez, head of the Economic Development Commission board and a former Collective Bargaining chief negotiator, said it is possible to request a separate union classification for the position, which could allow for a better salary.
Looking over the numbers, Tourism Department Commissioner-designee Joseph Boschulte added that the marine side generates the bulk of the Port’s revenues.
“The Port Authority has to make some serious decisions in reinvesting in the side of the business that makes the money,” he said.