May 4, 2004 – Rat-infested walls, sinking floors, non-functioning computers and deplorable working conditions overall were in the picture of the Motor Vehicle Bureau offices on St. Thomas painted for the Senate Government Affairs Committee on Tuesday night.
The hearing on St. Thomas was called in part to take testimony on a bill proposed by Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg to spin the bureau off from the Police Department and make it a department in its own right. While the senators disagreed on whether such a move could solve the bureau's ills, others spoke passionately in favor of the idea.
Now, functioning within the Police Department, the bureau has no budget of its own and, according to its director, Lawrence Olive, no "control over the level of funding that is provided" for its basic operations.
The Police Department, however, doesn't want to let the MVB go. Assistant Police Commissioner James H. McCall, representing his boss, Commissioner Elton Lewis, argued that the bureau "has always been a part of the Virgin Islands Police Department" and should remain so.
McCall read a five-page statement that catalogued many of the same problems cited by those supporting the bill, shortages of funding and personnel chief among them. In recent years, he said, "the Office of Management and Budget refuses to allow the filling of vacant positions within the MVB because the Police Department has exceeded its budget allowance in the area of overtime expenditures."
Every Police Department budget crunch becomes a crisis for the Motor Vehicle Bureau, McCall said. At one point he referred to the Sub Base offices as a cancerous growth.
The St. Thomas offices were all but swept away by torrential downpours and flooding last November. Workers returning to their desks after the rains found several feet of mud where the floor used to be, destroyed computers, wrecked office equipment and no efficient or affordable way to get things running again.
For thousands of St. Thomas motorists needing to obtain or renew drivers' licenses or vehicle registrations, it all added up to lines frequently stretching out the door, poor service and sometimes no service at all.
In an effort to alleviate some of the problems, the bureau 10 days ago began allowing motorists to mail their registration paperwork in or drop it off in lockboxes outside the territory's MVB offices. Since the procedures were instituted the final week of V.I. Carnival, with its numerous government holidays and leave days, it's hard to judge what the eventual effect will be.
However, on Tuesday night the V.I. Taxi Association president, Winston Parker, recounted a recent trip to the Sub Base offices when he saw "inspectors walking outside to give people in the line umbrellas because it was raining and there was no room left inside."
"This is 2004," Parker said. "What has 2004 brought us? In 1968 we used to have to stand outside for inspection. What's changed?"
Frustration surfaced often during the hearing as people described what it's like to work for, direct, legislate or seek the services of the MVB.
Riise Richards, local president of the Law Enforcement Supervisors Union, said she was testifying as a private citizen "exercising my constitutional rights." She said Olive has been "physically attacked on a number of occasions" by irate customers at the MVB.
And when customers and employees of the MVB aren't battling each other, it's other forces of nature they must contend with. In describing the Sub Base facilities, Richards spoke of rat infestations, 3- to 4-inch holes in the walls and "mosquitos the size of flies."
Donastorg's bill would create a new, autonomous Motor Vehicles Department with its own commissioner, its own financing, its own equipment and a budget that, as Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the committee chair, put it, would not "be continually reappropriated, perhaps understandably, to meet the needs of the police."
Defending his bill, Donastorg said that "60 percent of all states already have autonomous motor vehicle departments in place." He said the change would increase MVB revenues by dramatically improving working conditions and customers' experiences.
As it stands, the bureau is expected to bring in annual revenues of $8 million to $10 million by the end of 2005. Olive said the current operating budget is around $1 million. Donastorg said that with a more streamlined, independent department in place he would "personally guarantee revenues of $13 million."
Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., a onetime police chief, asked why the Police Department would want to hold onto its licensing and registration functions. "You should be fighting for more resources and money to fight crime," he said, "not fighting so you can check people's brakes and inspect their headlights."
McCall at first said security issues are one reason the police should hold on to the MVB. But later, questioned by Sen. Louis P. Hill, he said a separate department to handle the bureaucratic needs of the motoring public would not pose a security risk.
Sen. Douglas E. Canton Jr. noted that the Motor Vehicle Bureau is one of the few government arms that actually generates revenue. "What we're talking about here is a cash cow," he said. "The cow is producing the cash, but this administration is starving that cow."
All committee members were present for the meeting: Sens. Lorraine Berry, Canton, Carlton Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Hill, Malone and White. Also present was Donastorg, who is not a member of the committee.
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