The V.I. Casino Control Commission heard opposition from the territory’s only casino, Divi Carina Bay, when they considered increasing fees during a meeting Friday.
Chairwoman Violet Ann Golden read through more than two dozen proposed amendments for the commission’s regulations, including fee increases for gaming establishments and vendors, approved almost 200 licenses and discussed the rift between the racetrack management and horsemen during the meeting.
According to Golden, the commission has not charged full fees for licenses, approved by the V.I. government, since the territory’s only casino — Divi Carina Bay — opened its doors. She stressed that the fees are not being increased but “bringing them back to the original” amounts. However, if the commission approves the amendments, Divi Carina Bay effectively will be pay twice the current amount for its gaming license, with shorter terms.
Susan Varnes, president of Treasure Bay VI, the casino’s management company, and other stakeholders spoke against the new licensing fees, citing the territory’s current economy, fewer customers and lower revenue. Some of the proposed fees are 170 times higher than in other stateside jurisdictions, Varnes said. She said the changes are “anti-business,” while the territory is trying to attract new businesses.
The casino has 223 employees, pays $3 million in local taxes and $2 million a year for goods and services, according to Varnes.
Golden responded that only one fee is actually an increase: an additional $10 for a slot machine license, which would go up to $260 each.
“We have to operate beyond your company. There are extraordinary expenses not passed on necessarily,” Golden said. “I don’t want the impression left that this commission is gouging.”
In some cases, the fees won’t increase but will be paid more frequently. Some licenses, including a casino license, will be issued for one year instead of two years. In other cases, both the term and the fee will increase if approved by the commission members.
Casino employees also face higher outlay for their licenses because they will pay more often. The initial cost for key employees would be $600 for two years instead of three, plus a fee of $120 per hour when investigations are needed. The renewal license fee will be $400 a year, if the rates are approved.
Three employees testified to the commissioners that the license fees already strain their budgets, especially for those who are single parents. They pointed out that they could buy a computer for a child or a year’s subscription to the Internet for the price of their license. They have fewer patrons and tips than when the casino opened so they are feeling the tight economy.
“For 15 years, the Casino Commission discounted the fees by half. We didn’t collect what the law said we could,” Golden countered, adding that employees only pay between 20 and 40 cents a day for their licenses.
Likewise, non-gaming related casino service licenses for cleaning or storage companies could run $1,800 every two rather than three years.
Fee changes include $4,000 for a two-year liquor license and $2,000 for two-year renewal for a casino hotel with $120 hour rate for “efforts of the Commission on matters directly related,” including investigation. Casino servicing entities, such as slot machine services, will also be subject to $120 an hour investigation rate in addition to a $4,000 for the initial license and $2,000 for renewal, annually.
Junket enterprise licenses would renew every two years instead of three and renewal will be every two, rather than four years. Junket representatives, who may eventually bring groups of gamblers to the casino, will pay more frequently for a license than originally legislated. The first license will cost $450 and $400 every two years thereafter. Originally, those licenses were scheduled to be purchased every four and two years, although, according to Golden, there have been no junkets to the Divi Casino.
Other proposed changes to the casino regulations include lowering the minimum age of employees to 18 instead of 21, setting fees for various services and revised forms used for various applications.
The original item for discussion was whether or not Treasure Bay should be given more time to expand the St. Croix Racino, but the animosity between the racetrack operators and the Flamboyant Horsemen Association Inc. flared, sparking emotions and accusations, throwing the discussion off-track.
Attorney Todd Newman for Treasure Bay and Kye Walker, attorney for the FHA, agreed that both sides envisioned arbitration as the only way to resolve the differences but they couldn’t agree on an arbitrator. Walker said there is “no resolution in sight” and asked the commission to stipulate a deadline if the extension was granted.
In February, CCC ordered the parties to keep the Racino operational. Since then, there has been little agreement that each is doing their part.
Both sides said delays were caused by the other organization and said an interim agreement was barely holding things in place.
Six members of FHA testified that the lack of races has caused hardship and the condition of the track and facility is a liability.
“It’s been hard for the last 10 months. I’m not seeing any money. My groom is seeing money, but I’m not seeing any money,” horse owner Randy Rissing said.
Testimony from the horsemen included accusations that TRAXCO is delaying a resolution to eliminate paying purses and making improvements at the facility. The company has saved $1 million while the facility falls into disrepair, one said. Another testifier said jockeys are going across the highway to use the bathrooms at the airport because those at the track are in such bad shape. The racetrack, the sign, the building and the grounds are deteriorating, they all said.
Although there was long discussion and testimony from both sides, resolution was postponed for at least another month.
“We want everyone’s feet held to the fire,” Golden said, encouraging the parties to reach an agreement before the next meeting. Then the board agreed to postpone granting an extension until the November meeting.
Other business conducted during the day included disposing of patron complaint cases and approving licenses for non-gaming related services, employee licenses and gaming related licenses.
Roy Rodgers, representing Golden Gaming LLC, said the company is looking for a one-year extension for its casino application. The project is progressing and a $214 million “financial commitment” has been obtained. The board approved the request.
Commissioners present included Golden, Henry Richardson and Roderick Moorehead.