The crisis at the VI Taxicab Commission is worse than anyone thought, forcing at least two lawmakers to threaten an audit by the inspector general.
“This is my eighth year in the Senate, I’ve never seen the taxi commission at this level,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet, chairman of the finance committee, during Friday’s budget hearing. “Something is seriously wrong, we may have to ask the Inspector General to investigate the taxi commission.”
“We also welcome that, something is happening,” Commission President Loretta Lloyd said.
Senate Speaker Donna Frett-Gregory also threatened to conduct an audit after hearing responses from officials saying “this is serious.”
The staggering lack of control over one of the most crucial elements of the territory’s tourism industry became evident during the hearing, where leaders of the semi-autonomous government agency testified about their proposed budget.
But Lloyd and Acting Executive Director Vernice Gumbs ultimately admitted that the proposed budget is the same document from fiscal year 2022, and that they don’t have hard numbers or reliable information about the company’s current financial situation. commission.
“We are using the 2022 budget for this term until the next few weeks, we beg your indulgence,” Lloyd said.
“So the budget we have here is just a carryover from last year’s budget?” Vialet said.
“Yeah, because we don’t have the right numbers, we don’t have the right numbers, we don’t have the revenues, we don’t have the expenses, we don’t have the actual numbers, we don’t “We don’t have those. And so we ask for your indulgence to come back and present it,” Lloyd said.
The revelation came after nearly two hours of questioning.
Lloyd and Gumbs were unable to answer many fundamental questions posed by lawmakers, including the current balance of the Taxi License Fund, the agency’s sole source of funding, where the annual license fee of 130 $, penalties and other income are supposed to be deposited after being collected.
Vialet took it upon himself to obtain this information from the Office of Management and Budget during the hearing and said $461,345 was raised in the 2020 Taxi License Fund and $451,558 in 2021.
In March, “either six months or half the year, only $57,000 was deposited; $200,000 should have been deposited into this account,” Vialet said. “So as of 03/31/2022, based on information provided by Finance and OMB, the Taxi License Fund has a negative balance of $96,565. We are in the red.
By Friday, the fund balance had climbed to “negative $216,000,” Vialet said.
“When we started, we never used to give money to the Taxi Commission” because the agency was able to collect enough revenue to operate and cover its budget of around 1 million dollars, Vialet said.
The government began funding the Commission after the 2017 hurricanes under Governor Kenneth Mapp, which Vialet said made sense at the time because “the island was destroyed.”
The legislature has appropriated $305,000 for the Commission in the current budget under the miscellaneous fund, and the same amount is proposed for 2023.
The fact that the government gave them the money apparently surprised Lloyd and Gumbs, who said they only learned of the credit on Thursday evening.
“We had our challenges with the internet,” Lloyd said. “Just got it last night from OMB.”
“You haven’t raised $700,000 in the last two years – we used to raise that kind of money in 2014, 2015,” Vialet said. “How will your budget be maintained?” You only raised $57,000 this year, how are you going to maintain a $1 million budget when you only raised $57,000 and have a $300,000 credit against that budget? »
Gumbs said she intended to apply for a $400,000 grant to fund the development of a new computer system. She also said commission staff had not entered financial data into the computer system for months, so money was likely collected that is not reflected in this fund balance.
“It’s safe to say that from November until today, information had not entered the system regularly,” she said.
Gumbs recently took over the role in July and has not been involved in the preparation of the budget.
She testified that there is a discrepancy between what is actually reported to Finance and what the office collects because revenues and expenses are not entered monthly into the system. And that hasn’t been the case, to my knowledge, for some time.
Former executive director Linda Smith, who stepped down from her position in July, was predeceased by Shane Benjamin, who was hired after the board fired longtime director Levron Sarauw Sr. on March 4, 2020.
“Everyone knows my dad is the former director of the Taxi Commission,” said Senator Janelle Sarauw, who told Gumbs the commission had an agreement not to pay rent under her father’s tenure. .
Annual rent is $12,000 and the commission currently owes $84,000 in unpaid rent for its Sub Base office from 2015, according to Gumbs’ testimony, and she said she was unaware that the commission did not hadn’t paid rent before.
Senator Dwayne DeGraff asked how the commission intends to pay off its debts, including $84,000 in unpaid rent and overdue bills to local vendors, such as $777 to Caribbean Auto Mart for vehicle repairs and $612 at Office Depot.
“Having heard that we are now in the negative, we need to go back and review and make sure we have money to cover what is owed and settle any outstanding balances immediately,” Gumbs said.
“But you don’t,” DeGraff said. “You don’t have the money to cover it.”
Gumbs repeated that staff did not enter financial data.
“Where is the money?” DeGraff asked.
“They were kept on a spreadsheet but it didn’t go” into the computer system, Gumbs said.
Gumbs, when asked by Sarauw about the number of taxi licenses in each district and the total fees collected, said she forgot to bring the document showing those numbers.
Later, she said there were 238 licenses in the territory, but Sarauw said that was impossible because St. Thomas alone had 569 in 2021.
Frett-Gregory asked when was the last time the taxi fund was audited.
“To my knowledge, that was not the case,” Lloyd replied.
“We’re going to ask for an audit,” Frett-Gregory said. “It’s a serious mismanagement. It’s just bad business.
“Today doesn’t sound good for the Taxi Commission, it really doesn’t,” said Sen. Franklin Johnson, who described the St. Croix drivers operating illegally.
He said the St. Croix drivers were operating illegally and “When are you going to crack this down?” He asked.
Gumbs said she was aware of this and needed to hire additional enforcement officers.
The Commission last held the required training for new taxi operators in February, and Vialet asked when the next session will take place.
Gumbs said it was up to Tourism Commissioner Joseph Boschulte to schedule the course and he “didn’t respond. I’ve emailed him, several calls, and we’re still awaiting a status response.
“Senator, we are dealing with years of mismanagement and this is not a silver bullet. And we’re trying to work at it to put the Virgin Islands Taxicab Commission on the path to success, and we’re going to get there, but it’s a lot,” Lloyd acknowledged.
Vialet said lawmakers would follow up in an upcoming meeting with the commission.
“I’m not even going to ask for a closing statement because it’s not over,” Vialet said. “We don’t know what’s going on, and I also need to know why we have this negative balance in the taxi license fund.”