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PSC Ferry Rate Hearing Focuses on Accounting Questions

Unity Day Group President Lorelei Monsanto, right, makes a presentation to the PSC while members Stacie January, left, and Nydia Lewis listen.Accounting issues were the focus Wednesday as the Public Services Commission reconsidered its April 1 decision to raise ferry fares.
About 60 people attended the hearing held at the Legislature building.
The Unity Day Group asked for the reconsideration, saying errors were made in the original rate investigation. After that rate investigation, the PSC decided that it would allow ferry tickets to rise from $5 to $7 each way on the Cruz Bay to Red Hook run. Commuter tickets would go from $3 to $5 on that route. However, tickets on the Cruz Bay to Charlotte Amalie route would drop from $10 to $8 each way.
A second hearing is planned for 6 p.m. Thursday at the PSC office at Barbel Plaza on St. Thomas, but hearing examiner Jennifer Jones said she would make an announcement Thursday morning on whether the hearing would be held in light of the expected arrival of Tropical Storm Erika.
While Unity Day Group members spoke mainly to technical issues, one member of the public had plenty to say on the impact a fare increase would have on people traveling between St. Thomas and St. John.
"These are not affluent people riding the ferry. These are hardworking people," St. Thomas resident Clarence Payne said.
Payne said the two ferry companies that ply the waters between St. John and St. Thomas – Transportation Services and Varlack Ventures – would not have asked the PSC to increase fares except that the price of oil went sky high in the summer of 2008. Additionally, he said local government was supposed to provide a subsidy under the terms of the 1985 franchise agreement that gave the two companies an exclusive franchise.
He suggested that the boat companies should have filed suit years ago to force the government to pay the money.
"Why didn’t they shut the boats down and force the government to come to the table?" he asked.
Earlier, Unity Day Group member Nydia Lewis said the $1 million per year subsidies included in the local government’s 2009 and 2010 budgets should be included in calculating the rates.
St. John resident Pam Gaffin was the only other member of the public to speak. A bookkeeper by trade, she complained that while the ferry companies made changes to incorrect audited financial reports, she had so many different sets of financial statements, it was time to start over with a new set.
"We don’t have a clean set of numbers," she said.
Gaffin said the corrected financial statements show the companies are making profits, not huge losses as indicated by Claudette Ferron, a St. Thomas attorney who represents both ferry companies.
"The ferry boats are losing $1 million a year," Ferron said.
Gaffin pointed out that the financial statements from both the companies show wide disparities in figures that should be similar because the companies run the same routes.
Gaffin also suggested that some portion of the large salary paid to a ferry company owner should be considered profit.

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