The island meeting on the increases in barge and ferry fees at The Westin Resort ballroom started late with a small audience because of competition from another community meeting on island development at the Legislature in Cruz Bay, but by the end of the meeting a good-sized group of residents was getting some answers to their concerns from some top government officials.
Both V.I. Port Authority (VIPA) and V.I. Public Services Commission (PSC) officials had been asked to attend the 6 p.m. ferry and barge fee meeting by Senator at Large Craig Barshinger.
VIPA board chairman and former St. John Senator at Large Robert OConnor Jr. who repeatedly had promised to attend, according to Barshinger arrived at the island meeting around 8 p.m. with St. John Administrator Julien Harley.
By that time, the group in the Westin Resort ballroom had swelled to more than 40 people along with criticism of the Port Authoritys new fees.
OConnor left the meeting before 9 p.m. and declined repeated offers and requests from Barshinger to address the group. We are seeing a semi-autonomous government agency thumbing their nose at the people of St. John, Senator at Large Craig Barshinger said.
Theyre doing it because St. John has no true representation, said Anecia Lettsome Sewer of Love City Car Ferries Inc., formerly Republic Barge Service. It is because St. John has no true representation.
VIPA Reps Listens
By the time V.I. Port Authority representative Toni Johnson arrived at the island meeting at The Westin Resort in transit from Puerto Rico after an accidental stop at the DNPR meeting in Cruz Bay VIPA had been roasted for not sending a representative and especially for the failure of VIPA Board Chairman Robert OConnor Jr. of St. John to attend the meeting.
By the time she had identified herself to Barshinger, Johnson was asked to listen to comments and questions for one-half hour before turning over the microphone to Public Services Com-mission chairperson Alecia Wells of St. John to discuss ferry issues in time to allow the other PSC officials to catch the 9 p.m. ferry back to St. Thomas.
Johnson, an assistant to VIPA executive director Darlan Brin, said she would take community concerns back to her boss. And, although several audience members questioned Johnsons authority to respond to their concerns that didnt stop them from speaking their minds.
This fee was implemented to charge people to get home to St. John, said one resident.
Tell the Port Authority to rescind this tax, said another.
The whole thing is illegal, said Love City Car Ferries Sewer. Its taxation without representation.
PSCs Wells Answers Questions
PSC chairperson Alecia Wells took the microphone at her seat in the audience and explained the PSCs May vote to grant permanent fare increase to the islands two franchised ferry operators. The career educator told residents and fellow St. Johnians the fare increases were necessary for the economic survival of the ferry companies and improvement of the service.
Wells, backed by PSC member Raymond Williams from St. Croix and PSC Executive Director Keithly Joseph, assured residents the ferry companies would be required to improve services and training with the increase.
One audience member had a question about a specific area of the fee schedule for baggage.
Are we paying for groceries or what?
Wells, a regular commuter to St. Thomas, had a simple question of her own.
Why isnt someone in the booth? Why cant we buy a ticket?
Delrise Varlack was the only representative of the islands ferry companies to attend. The Varlack Ventures officer took notes through the three-hour meeting and tried to answer audience questions and criticisms when she finally had a opportunity to respond to criticisms and questions at length.
I am asking for a chance to put the improvements in place, said Varlack. We need to be given a chance to put our systems into place.
A permanent increase was necessary to allow the the company to fund capital improvements including new ferries, in addition to adding and training new staff, according to Varlack
After several audience members, including the PSCs Wells had complained about paying a baggage fee and then being forced to carry their own bags to the vessels, Varlack announced the ferry companies would be providing free baggage carts on the dock for passengers.