Planned dredging to increase cruise berthing capacity in Crown Bay, St. Thomas, will help keep the West Indian Company’s facilities from turning down ships and increase revenues, but more is needed to effectively compete, WICO Executive Director Joseph Boschulte said during budget hearings Monday.
"We lose ships to other destinations when the large docks are full," Boschulte told the Finance Committee. The West Indian Company operates and maintains the territory’s largest cruise ship port, the WICO dock, and also manages the adjacent Havensight Mall, which is owned by the Government Employee Retirement System. The West Indian Company is owned by the Public Finance Authority.
The West Indian Company currently forecasts 411 ships will berth at the WICO dock from Sept. 1, 2014, through Aug. 31, 2015 – five fewer than the year before, Boschulte said.
As he did last year, Boschulte emphasized the importance of preparing for the bigger and bigger cruise ships that are becoming the norm, pointing to the money other destinations, from the Bahamas to Cuba, are investing in their ports.
The West Indian Company’s revenues are improving somewhat but are far from their pre-recession peak, Boschulte said, and as a result, WICO will once again be unable to pay a $700,000 payment in lieu of taxes to the government. The West Indian Company has not made a full payment of this legislative mandate since 2006. Its finances began to worsen when the recession hit and the V.I. Port Authority opened the Crown Bay port, he said. Boschulte said WICO hopes to resolve what is owed on their annual contribution to the government by transferring title to the governor’s residence in Estate Catherineberg.
The property is valued at more than $3 million, while WICO now owes $4.7 million in payment in lieu of taxes.
The West Indian Company does not get any money from the local government’s General Fund, although the government’s Public Finance Authority owns WICO. It presents a budget to the Legislature but does not receive an appropriation. It projects revenues of $10 million in Fiscal Year 2015 – down more than half a million from last year’s projected $10.6 million. About $7.4 million of that is from passenger and docking fees, with the remainder from selling water to ships, mooring fees and leases.
It projects expenses of $7.3 million – up $1.1 million from the year before.
V.I. Housing Authority Executive Director Robert Graham gave an overview of low-income public housing and of 2014 revenues and expenses of that independent agency overseeing federally funded public housing in the territory. It is also federally funded.
Sen. Judi Buckley talked about low-occupancy rates in public housing facilities on St. Croix and the apparent migration of occupants to the use of the voucher system for private rentals.
Graham agreed that was happening, saying there are “fewer families choosing public housing because there are more choices available in St. Croix.” He said families were prone to choosing vouchers, which have a waiting period of up to five years, because they prefer not to live in the developments, some of which are high crime areas.
During the discussion, Graham said that VIHA sees a future where housing communities would be made up of families of varying income brackets and would no longer be areas of concentrated poverty.
Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen asked about the status of a transfer of William’s Delight from Housing and Urban Development to the local government that she said was dated in May of this year. Graham said that HUD had signed a “transition and oversight agreement with the territory, the Housing Authority and HUD."
No votes were taken at the information gathering budget hearing.
“This week we have autonomous instrumentalities that really provide the budget overview to the Legislature of what they are doing or what they plan to do in the upcoming fiscal year,” said Finance Committee Chairman Clifford Graham. “These entities really don’t get any funds from the government of the Virgin Islands so it’s really a budget overview of their agency and what’s happening in their agency as we go forward” with the new fiscal year, he said.
Committee members present included Buckley, Graham, Sens. Myron Jackson and Terrence "Positive" Nelson. Hansen and Sens. Diane Capehart and Tregenza Roach were also present.