Workers move cargo from stacked containers Tuesday at the BVI Ports Authority facility at Port Purcell. (File photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

Fees for cargo, wharfage and other services will double and the cost of some licences will more than triple under a new fee hike announced last week by the BVI Ports Authority.

The move prompted a swift outcry from some businesses at a time when they are already struggling amid the Covid-19 pandemic, although BVIPA representatives said the hikes are needed after 20 years without an increase.

“BVIPA is required to examine its cost to operate and recommend adjustments to its fee structure to ensure the economic sustainability of the authority,” BVIPA Director of Finance Claude Kettle said in a statement about the increases, which were passed officially on Dec. 18. “These overdue adjustments in select fees are necessary to efficiently and properly operate and further develop our territory’s port facilities.”

However, businesses that ship goods will be feeling those adjustments in their pocketbooks when the fees take effect after a grace period, which ends March 1, the BVIPA announced on Jan. 25.

After that, cargo and other fees will rise from $2 per tonne to $4 per tonne, and wharfage will increase from 1 to 2 percent of “free on board” value.

The licensing fees for ship agents and freight forwarders, meanwhile, will be subject to even heftier increases of 750 percent, from $200 to $1,500 per year.

Pilots’ licences will increase 300 percent, from $500 to $1,500 per annum. Ferry operators will also see the cost for their licences double, from $2 to $4 per passenger per year.

Businesses object

The BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association called the fee hikes during the pandemic “borderline madness” to implement without consulting the business community, especially after the chamber claimed it enquired in September whether fee increases were on the table and did not receive an answer.

“The reply received said, ‘The BVI Ports Authority has not implemented an increase in fees for 2020,’ which did not answer the posed question directly,” claimed a BVICCHA statement released Monday. “We now learn that increases were put in place in December 2020 and announced in January 2021 with no notice, consultation or even a grace period. This is unacceptable. The cost of doing business is already too high. These increases will have to be passed on to consumers who are already struggling to make ends meet in some cases.”

The BVICCHA has repeatedly claimed that its offers to help government develop an economic recovery plan in the wake of the pandemic have been rebuffed, and it said this week that its input could have helped the BVIPA find better solutions than an across-the-board fee hike.

“Cost increases are one thing. Rate spikes for whatever reason without consultation are pure and simple an example of bad governance,” the statement said, calling for the fee hike to be put on hold while the
BVIPA consults with stakeholders. “Wastage should be looked at when a body is looking to generate revenue. New revenue streams are another area of priority. … The Virgin Islands can no longer endure a piecemeal approach.”

‘Revenue generating’

The BVIPA justified the move, however, by claiming that the ports are a “revenue-generating entity,” with fees representing 100 percent of its budget.

“The amendment to the port fees ensures that the authority can continue to meet the cost of its payroll, improvement and modernising of its technology [and] operations, and to accomplish the authority’s robust infrastructure development plans,” the BVIPA statement explained.

Acting Managing Director Oleanvine Maynard said the grace period will “ensure the public has the opportunity to become familiar with the new fees.”

After that, she added, all payments must reflect the new fees established by the amendment.

Most of the current fees have been in place at least since 2000, according to archived versions of the BVIPA’s website, which means at least 20 years have passed without any major overhaul of the fee structure.

According to the BVIPA, there was a “partial adjustment” in 2008 to harbour charges, which were not affected by the most recent amendment.

New website

At the same time the fee increase was announced, the BVIPA launched a new website with a streamlined design, improved functionality, and easier access to information related to Covid-19 and other matters.

“We are thrilled to debut our new company website to our clients, partners and local public, who are looking to understand the breadth of BVIPA products and services,” Ms. Maynard said.

“This website redesign truly ties together all the port services into one place and allows for each visitor to have the same experience and access to our robust service information, educational materials, and compliance alerts.”