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Charlotte Amalie
Thursday, March 30, 2023


Feb. 19, 2004 – The Motor Vehicle Bureau operation on St. Thomas got a pat on the back Thursday from a vice president of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.
Harold Hammond of Prattville, Ala., is visiting the territory at the request of Police Commissioner Elton Lewis.
Hammond oversees 14 southern states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for the association. On his last regular visit here, he was invited by Lewis to return to "take a look at our operations and give us positive feedback on how we can improve."
On Thursday, before the two of them shared what that "look" had turned up, Lewis had some news certain to be welcomed by St. Thomas motorists: "We just received an allotment of more than $120,000 from the Office of Management and Budget to replenish our technological losses on St. Thomas, and we expect the bureau to be fully operational by March 15."
The flooding triggered by extensive rains last November wreaked havoc with equipment in the bureau offices, from computers to cameras to telephone lines to toilets, and inundated the inspection lane area. The bureau reopened on a part-time basis shortly before the Christmas holidays, with personnel conducting limited inspections and road tests. But it couldn't begin to catch up on the backlog of thousands of motorists seeking inspections, license renewals and other services.
As of January, office hours were still reduced and inspections were by appointment only, with priority given to new vehicles and those operated by rental agencies. Motorists whose registrations expired in November, December of January were able to obtain an inspection waiver by having their registration papers signed by an inspector.
And frustrated drivers were warned not to bother barging their cars over to St. John in search of services; they would just be sent back to St. Thomas. (See "Drivers' licenses: woes, dilemma, police response".)
'The worst thing — the facility'
Hammond, in offering his assessment, looked first at the big picture."The Virgin Islands problems are not unique," he said. "Most of the states have had outstanding deficits this fiscal year." In fact, only four of them have had sufficient funds to provide all mandated motor vehicle services, he said, while Florida, Texas, Tennessee and Alabama have run up deficits of as much as $500 million.
"What they are faced with is deciding which priorities to fund," Hammond said. "Health and education always come first, not motor vehicles." As a result, he said, "the vast majority all are offering sub-par services, with curtailed benefits."
Turning to V.I. specifics, Hammond said: "Obviously, the first thing you see is the worst thing — the facility." However, he added, "It's actually not the worst I've seen. I come from a state with staffing and equipment problems. With a better facility and more staffing, you could ease the frustration on both sides of the counter. It's the same problem I see everywhere. Increase the level of funding, and the service level can be improved."
Lewis sees public-private sector partnering as a way to get the funding needed to improve Motor Vehicle Bureau operations — and he's assertively seeking it. "Yesterday we met with at least 20 members of the business community, the Economic Development Commission beneficiaries, to discuss ways of solving issues — and how they can assist," he said.
Lewis said attorney Paul Gimenez, who resigned last year as the governor's legal counsel and now works with one of the EDC beneficiaries, has "led the charge."
"He is very enthusiastic," Lewis said. "The group has been meeting for several weeks to set up a framework to address logistical needs. They are committed to providing some funding to upgrade and streamline the operation." The makeup of the group, he said, is "the EDC beneficiaries, mainly, but also we're getting some help from the U.S. Attorney's Office and the [St. Thomas-St. John] Chamber of Commerce."
Hammond described a number of initiatives in the states to smooth vehicle bureau operations in a time of belt-tightening. In most states, he said, drivers can get their vehicles inspected at gas stations and garages which are monitored by government personnel. "Only a handful of states" don't have that type of inspection program, he said, and many have reduced or repealed programs formerly in effect.
"The trend is not to inspect every year — every three to five years is often enough," Hammond said, and this frees inspection personnel for other duties. "Some states have repealed inspection totally," he said. "The thinking is that an officer on the road can detect an unsafe vehicle."
At Wednesday's meeting of EDC beneficiaries, Lewis said, "there was a lot of talk on the table" about vehicle bureau reforms. He said the V.I. Code gives him authority to license garages to conduct inspections, and "we are putting that on the table, as well, sanctioned through the governor. It's a viable option."
Another stateside trend, Hammond said, is toward automobile dealers becoming agents of the government to issue license tags and titles. Because of the possibility of fraud, he said, "it has to be monitored very closely — but so do the DMV operations."
In some states, drivers with clean records can renew their licenses on the Internet, Hammond said, something that could be implemented in the territory. He said Arizona is in the forefront of this approach. "They don't even want to see drivers under 65 if they have a clean driving record," he said, "and then it's for an eye test." He acknowledged that might be a good time for a new photo as well.
Territory cited for reducing traffic deaths
Hammond announced that the Virgin Islands has earned an award for reducing traffic fatalities. The territory "led my region in the reduction of traffic fatalities in 2002 from the previous year, with 15 fatalities — which is about a 16 percent decrease," he said. "It's unusual to see a decrease," he said, attributing the local results to a strong "buckle-up" campaign.
The $1,000 award, to be used for a highway safety program, will be presented to Barbara McIntosh, Police Department highway safety director, at a Monday morning taping of "Talk 2," Amos Carty's TV2 show, for broadcast later in the week, Lewis said.
Hammond also had compliments for two aspects of the St. Thomas driver's license operations. "Your I.D. photos are much better than many states, and a better aid to identification," he said. And, "you have license plates on the front and back of vehicles. That's a good safety measure, and less than half the states do it."
At Hammond's invitation, Lawrence Olive, director of the St. Thomas vehicle bureau, and four members of his staff are going to Houston, Tex., to attend a Feb. 25-28 seminar on driver's license fraud. The seminar is sponsored Hammond's association and participation will cost the territory nothing, he said. The program is being offered in conjunction with the federal Department of Homeland Security, and representatives of 76 jurisdictions in the States, the territories and Canada will attend, he said.
Hammond did say that while the St. Thomas vehicle bureau problems are not unique, the location might be. "I don't recall being flooded," he said, "but none of the states I represent are below sea level."

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