During Wednesday’s Committee on Government Operations, Veterans Affairs and Consumer Protection senators were able to receive an update from the Taxicab Commission, as well as discuss proposed legislation to assist in resolving the chaos that led to the extensive office closures.
Loretta Lloyd, chairwoman of the V.I. Taxicab Commission Board, informed the Senate body of the challenges starting with the Rules and Regulations. “Since 2010, the rules and regulations were transmitted to the Office of the Attorney General to be reviewed for legal sufficiency and subsequently transmitted to the legal counsel’s office of the Governor for promulgation, and to date following up on the status of this document without success,” she said.
Along with not being able to provide adequate rules and regulation documentation, Lloyd proceeded with her testimony revealing that there have not been any By-Laws established by prior boards. The current board recently submitted a final draft to all members in March after having to engage in a contract for legal services in an attempt to bring structure to the commission.
“Establishing quorums for board meetings has been and continues to be our greatest challenge. As of today, there are still only seven members of which six members’ terms are now expired. A 3-month schedule for board meetings has been established in an effort to minimize absenteeism and commit ourselves to do the work. I have spoken to the Governor several times since 2020 regarding the urgency to fill the vacancies as soon as possible,” Lloyd said.
Sen. Angel L. Bolques Jr. dove into his line of questioning by inquiring about the current number of employees as well as the actual amount of persons needed to become fully functional and operational.
Vernice Gumbs, executive director of the V.I. Taxicab Commission attempted to answer but was unable to respond effectively for lawmakers to comprehend due to the loss of her voice. Senators, not wanting to place any further strain on Gumbs, began asking open-ended questions and directed questions to Lloyd.
Lloyd stepped in to inform the current number of employees. On St. Croix, there are two administrative staffers and four on St. Thomas. A total of three enforcement officers in the territory with two on St. Thomas and one on St. Croix. In order to have a fully functional operation, Lloyd said the agency needs an overall of 10 enforcement officers and two additional administrative staffers.
Sen. Ray Fonseca showing concern regarding the lack of employees and the agency in general asked if the division is adequately funded.
“We generate our own revenue through permits, citations, and business licenses. We are not funded by the executive branch,” said Lloyd.
Fonseca pressing the matter of funding, said that funding is important since the commission is still operating on a manual based (paperwork) and needs to transition into an automated system (digitalized), asking what is needed for the commission to make that transition.
Lloyd speaking on behalf of Gumbs, said that Gumbs was in talks with some people regarding the matter of becoming digitalized.
Chairwoman Carla Joseph stated “that based on the executive branch budget the appropriation is $1,017,776 for the taxi commission for the upcoming fiscal year 2024, and that it is probably the same amount that was funded for the previous years.”
Former Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw testified, “While serving in the 33rd and 34th Legislature, it was apparent after many committee hearings that the state of the Commission was in shambles. During the Taxicab’s budget hearing in 2021, it was evident that the board and the executive directors clashed.”
Sarauw expressed her observations of the commission, saying the board used “outdated language in the code to usurp the powers of the director, thus rendering them ineffective. Because of such action by the board, the previous two directors and this one operated in a symbolic, figurative fashion.”
Giving credit where it is due, Sarauw did not mince words as she followed through with her keynotes. “The board of Taxicab Commission chaired by Ms. Lloyd who has not lived on island for about the last four to five years continued to render decisions that literally left the finances of the Commission in distress, understaffed which led to many office closures and the chief of enforcement was selected based on favoritism and not qualifications,” she said.
Bolques proposed Bill No. 35-0036, an Act amending the Virgin Islands Code to clarify the duties and responsibilities of the executive director of the Taxicab Commission.
Sarauw testifying in favor of the bill, gave “a few examples why the executive director must be empowered,” backtracking to an incident with Former Executive Director Shane Benjamin.
“An interview of two enforcement officers took place with Benjamin and he sent letters indicating the date they should report to the academy. After those two recruits resigned from their previous places of employment to join the academy, the Board sent letters to both relieving them,” she said, recalling the incident showcasing the power struggle.
Providing further examples, Sarauw explained, “Former director Ms. Linda Smith and Ms. Vernice Gumbs came before the Committee on Finance to present the budget, but was unable to.”
Calling the budget presentation “an utter disaster” due to the discovery that “the board authorized the Department of Finance to remove Taxicab Commission staff from the ERP system. As a result, the directors of the Commission were unable to provide accurate revenue reports, nor were they able to establish a budget because the board refused to provide the directors with the information. Former Finance Chairman Sen. Vialet had to adjourn and reschedule the Commission,” said Sarauw.
As the originator of the legislation that would empower the executive director of the Taxicab Commission in the last session of the 34th Legislature, Sarauw worked in collaboration with Bolques after the original bill was vetoed by the governor. Creating new language with similarities, but saying the same thing, they were able to bring back the legislation and once again have it pass unanimously through the Senate body during Wednesday’s hearing.
“The Board has pressing matters to address that the day-to-day administrative functions of the Commission should be left to the director. This legislation establishes a clear line of demarcation between the two and as such,” said Saruaw.
Sens. Carla Joseph, Angel Bolques Jr, Ray Fonseca, Alma Francis Heyliger, Milton Potter, Samuel Carrion, Diane Capehart, Kenneth Gittens, Javan James Sr, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Marvin Blyden, and Marise C. James were in attendance at Wednesday’s hearing.