V.I. lawmakers advanced a trio of bills on Tuesday to rein in the V.I. Water and Power Authority, marking one of the most expansive single-day efforts to heighten oversight and accountability of a utility awash in debt.
Topping the list was Bill 33-0346, an act that suspends the WAPA Governing Board and replaces it with a “Management and Oversight Review Committee” for at least three years.
The bill, which got unanimous support on Tuesday from the Senate Rules and Judiciary Committee and advanced to the full body, aims to bring together five subject matter experts in power generation, finance and law, who can perform an objective “deep dive” into the operational and financial management of the utility.
Sen. Janelle Sarauw, chairperson of the Rules and Judiciary Committee and one of the primary sponsors of the bill, said the measure was an alternative to putting WAPA into receivership, and allows a separate body — untethered by the WAPA board — to ensure the utility changes direction.
“The culture of WAPA must change,” Sarauw said. “We don’t expect perfection … but we do expect a level of effort, transparency and honesty.”
The proposed committee would be financed by a $250,000 appropriation from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund and have two members selected by the governor, two selected by the Senate president, and the sitting V.I. Energy director — in this case, Director Kyle Fleming.
The committee would acquire all financial and organizational documents from WAPA; develop plans for appropriate base rates and debt consolidation among other areas; and procure the services of a public utility management company if more expertise is needed.
WAPA Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer and WAPA Board Chairman Anthony Thomas both rejected the bill as unnecessary, given the current expertise on the WAPA Governing Board and the potential for a new committee to hamper progress and cause instability with investors.
“Any adjustments at this juncture to the current management structure of [WAPA] will only hamper the progress that has already taken place, progress [that] is apparently being purposely ignored by those who are peddling quick fixes and pie in the sky solutions to the people of the Virgin Islands,” Thomas said.
The chairman added that WAPA has access to unprecedented funding and has made “tremendous progress” toward the development of infrastructure that will reduce utility cost, create sustainable generation and promote the use of reusable clean energy.
“To indicate that a management oversight committee will in three years be able to address the issues that have been on the forefront of every discussion and strategy of the [WAPA] Governing Board and management … is disingenuous,” Thomas said.
Other primary sponsors of the bill included Senators Donna Frett-Gregory, Kenneth Gittens and Kurt Vialet.
Voting in favor of the bill were Sarauw, Frett-Gregory and Gittens, along with Senators Alicia Barnes, Myron Jackson, Steven Payne Sr. and Javan James Sr.
The Rules and Judiciary Committee also unanimously advanced Bill 33-0272, a measure that creates the “Virgin Islands Ratepayers’ Bill of Rights,” a set of protections to safeguard customers of all public utilities from dubious rate hikes or disruptions.
Gittens, a primary sponsor of the bill, along with Barnes and co-sponsor Sen. Marvin Blyden, said the measure is a necessary step toward greater accountability.
“Virgin Islands utility ratepayers deserve basic protections from disconnections, billing errors and otherwise unfair treatment and this bill seeks to give ratepayers some level of backing and assurance that their concerns will be heard,” he said.
The bill includes a number of rights, such as:
• Ratepayers being entitled to a 60-day notice before any utility can submit a request for a rate increase to the Public Services Commission (PSC).
• Ratepayers being entitled to intervene in any case before the PSC affecting their rates or utility service.
• Ratepayers being entitled to negotiate a delayed payment plan to avoid disconnection.
• Ratepayers being entitled to avoid disconnection if approved for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Among other provisions, the bill also gives the PSC jurisdiction over consumer complaints.
The Rules Committee also unanimously advanced Bill 33-0211, which ensures that members of the PSC have a level of expertise in an area specific to their duties.
Barnes, a primary sponsor, said the Legislature has long sought to bring relief to ratepayers and that Bill 33-0211 will ensure the PSC, which sets utility rates, will have certain qualifications codified in law.
Gittens was also a primary sponsor of the bill, with Sen. Stedmann Hodge Jr. as a co-sponsor.