Government evicts St. John Taxi Association from Cruz Bay property
Published: September 27, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - For almost a decade, taxi drivers on St. John have been paying dues into the pockets of a taxi organization that has had no license to operate and now has no place to operate.
The St. John Taxi Association, founded in 2002, has been collecting between $5 and $8 from several dozen drivers daily - $5 for members and $8 for non-members - who use the property that the association oversees.
It also has been collecting $10 monthly fees from members.
Where those collections have gone is a mystery, as the V.I. Property and Procurement Department said that the association has missed many of its $400 monthly lease payments in recent years, according to Andre Malone, community outreach liaison for Sen. Clarence Payne III.
Drivers who are not members of the St. John Taxi Association said they are bullied and harassed by the organization and are being unfairly denied access.
Payne's office alerted a number of agencies to the matter in recent months, and now the agencies are looking into it, realizing that issues with the association have been swept under the rug for years.
Neither the V.I. Lt. Governor's Office nor the V.I. Taxi Cab Commission has records of the association's finances, nor does the V.I. Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs.
The association received a letter from Property and Procurement on Aug. 29 stating that the association needs to vacate the 3,400-square-foot property that it occupies.
The deadline to leave: today.
The association's 'property'
The property is a parking lot where the drivers line their vehicles up every morning, adjacent to the Loredon Lawrence Boynes Sr. Dock in Cruz Bay, the main port of entry for St. John, where the passenger ferries and charter boats unload.
Across the road, the drivers hang out, playing board games and eating lunch, in the shade of the gazebo in Franklin Powell Park.
The space is a prime location for the purpose of the association's business.
However, whether the association will depart remains to be seen, as Property and Procurement also told the association to vacate the space in 2011 but never enforced the demand.
In the Aug. 29 letter, Property and Procurement Commissioner Lynn Millin-Maduro informed the association that the department's one-year lease with the association expired in 2003. Property and Procurement told the association that after the lease expired, the organization became a month-to-month holdover tenant.
Eight years after the lease expired, Millin-Maduro told the association that it needed to leave by June 1, 2011, and the space would revert back to the government. The reason for the first eviction notice was not specified.
Two years and four months later, the department is making the same demand.
"We are therefore exercising our rights under the Virgin Islands Law. This matter has been referred to the Department of Justice," Millin-Maduro said in the Aug. 29 letter. "Your failure to vacate the premises on or before Sept. 27, 2013, will result in the government initiating legal proceedings in the Superior Court to evict you from the premises."
Millin-Maduro asked that the association contact Assistant Attorney General Nadja Harrigan.
Harrigan deferred all questions from The Daily News to Millin-Maduro, who repeatedly did not return phone calls about the St. John Taxi Association during the last two weeks.
V.I. Attorney General Vincent Frazer told The Daily News that he would not comment on whether the office was investigating the matter.
No business license
The association, which comprises about 35 members, is a nonprofit led by people elected by the membership, who insist that they have ensured that the association has made necessary payments throughout the years. Archibald Stephens is the president of the association, and Hayden Smith is the vice president.
"We did pay the lease, every month," Smith said. "Of course we have records."
However, when asked this week for proof of the records, Smith deferred the burden of proof onto Property and Procurement.
"They're all locked up in the computer," Smith said of the association's financial records.
Smith said that the association has not had a business license, specifically a taxi stand concession license, but he said this week that the association obtained one from the V.I. Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs.
Judith Wheatley, executive director of the V.I. Taxi Cab Commission, confirmed that the St. John Taxi Association did get a taxi stand concession license.
"That means nothing," she said.
Without the Taxi Cab Commission's approval of the association's registration, and without a lease contract for a location from which they can conduct their business, the license is invalid, at least for the time being, Wheatley said.
DLCA Commissioner Wayne Biggs Jr. could not be reached for comment.
The association is not related to other taxi associations in the territory, as those have their own licenses to operate and are registered with the V.I. Taxicab Commission. Though the St. John association never was denied a license, it may be difficult for it to get one now because of the poor standing it now has, without a lease and with a myriad questions from various agencies about its finances.
Not long after Property and Procurement issued its letter, Wheatley also issued a letter, on Sept. 9, stating that, effective immediately, the association no longer can collect fees from any of the drivers.
"The government needs to take it over," said James Penn, a taxi driver on St. John who is not part of the association.
Many of the drivers, including Penn, avoid the space where the association operates now because the association treats members favorably and bullies non-members.
"I would like to go back because you can make a lot of money down there," Penn said.
"A lot of them want to come back," he said of other drivers.
Instead, many of the drivers who are not members of the association have migrated to the Trunk Bay area, where there is less business but also less competition and politics.
For several years, the association has not conducted elections, which Smith confirmed, though he said that the association is not trying to be unfair to members or non-members.
However, Penn said that some of the drivers are not welcome to be a part of the association, as a lot of them are told that they cannot come back to the association's spot because they somehow wronged the association.
Smith disputed the claim, though a number of other taxi drivers agreed with Penn's sentiment.
Many of the drivers have been asking for years that the government step in, though no one has responded until now, Penn said.
"There's good taxi drivers on this island that want things to be right," Penn said.
Taxi Cab Commission
Wheatley said that the Taxi Cab Commission had received complaints in years past about the elections, and one year the commission did respond to the complaints, ensuring that the commission held an election that year.
However, the Taxi Cab Commission did not expect that there would be any further issues with the association and did not check up on it until it heard about Property and Procurement's letter last month, according to Wheatley.
"You don't hear anything until the smoke goes up again," she said, noting that the commission had not heard anything about the organization since the election issue.
The commission likely will take over the lease payments to Property and Procurement and the commission will start collecting the daily fees from drivers, Wheatley said. It has not yet decided how much it will collect, though it will use the money for the lease and to put more resources into St. John, she said.
The commission will allow the association to continue operations, but the organization will have to go through the appropriate process, and may have to operate elsewhere if the commission takes over the space.
Wheatley said all of the drivers on St. John will be able to use the association's former property, and they all will be treated the same.
"It's basically an open line," she said.
- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email email@example.com.