Editor's note: In this letter, WAPA's executive director, Joseph Thomas, responds to criticism in letters to the editor in other publications about recent power outages.
The Water and Power Authority understands the frustration expressed by some, in recent letters to the editor related to the service outages of November 2001 and January 2002. We also support our customers' rights to express their opinions. But certain inaccuracies and misconceptions present in some of the recent letters force us to provide the following clarifications.
The characterization of the authority as a "crisis management" organization is inaccurate. It is certainly true that the authority's employees manage crises and do it quite well under the circumstances. The term "crisis management," however, suggests a lack of planning, and nothing could be further from the truth. The authority has always developed competent plans, which are supported by our nationally recognized advisers.
The problem has been a shortfall in the expected funding which should have been available to carry out some of these plans. The shortfall in funding was the direct result of promised payments by our largest customer, which didn't arrive as promised.
It is also a mischaracterization that the authority is somehow involved in a "desperate attempt to run out and borrow money." The new bond issue has been planned and discussed at WAPA Governing Board and committee meetings for nearly eight months. We decided back in May and June 2001 that it made little sense to continue with "Band-Aid"- type solutions. We need a more comprehensive bond issue to fix/replace the things in our business that need attention, thereby improving the long-term service we provide to our customers.
After months of work, the authority expects to present a detailed plan for our new bond financing effort at the upcoming meeting of the Governing Board's Finance Committee (chaired by Andrew Rutnik) and the subsequent Governing Board meeting (chaired by Carol Burke) for approval.
There is also the misconception that third-party ownership can address all the challenges of an island utility. The only thing third-party ownership of the authority is likely to provide, beyond what the authority can do for itself, is the added profit the Virgin Islands community would have to pay to stateside owners. Further, the Virgin Islands would lose control of one of its most valuable assets — a very bad idea.
Island utilities are "stand-alone" utilities and are not part of a greater network or grid, as are most stateside utilities. Stateside utility systems, because of the grid in which they are interconnected, are afforded a level of system stability, which is impossible for an island utility like ours. For that reason, we maintain significantly more production capacity to offset the impact of potential disturbances in our system. Also, most third party arrangements provide generation only. This means that responsibility for the transmission and distribution lines (electric and water) would remain with the authority.
The latest outage incident began with a fault in the distribution network which triggered the failure of an old component at the plant and would have caused a system imbalance no matter who owned the generation. The plain fact is that, even though the authority may have the best performance record of any utility in the Caribbean, it needs to undergo some key upgrades. These upgrades have been identified and quantified, and many of them are part of our capital project effort, which will begin with funding from our proposed new bond issue in mid 2002. The Virgin Islands does not need outside ownership to have a first-class utility.
We can understand and respect the frustration that some of our customers have when we experience extended service interruptions. What is harder to understand, however, is the outrage expressed by some. For some, it seems that they can see the symptoms of a condition much better than they can see the underlying illness. Their outrage may have been more appropriate when:
– The water distribution system was transferred to the authority in poor repair and without adequate funding; or – The government was allowed to forgo paying its utility bills for up to 7 years and run up a delinquency in excess of $30 million; or
– The street/area lights service was recently transferred to the authority without adequate funding, liability protection and start-up time; or
– The desalinization barge was transferred to the authority over our objections and without funding for added liability insurance, rather than simply returning it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; or
– The Legislature passed the unfunded WAPA Hazardous Duty Early Retirement Bill; or
– The existing effort [is being made] to force the authority to buy unneeded electric power and water from a source which we and our advisers have shown to be commercially unproven.
These items are only a few of the issues which over the years might have been a good place for much of the misplaced outrage of some of the recent letters-to-the-editor. When faced with these flawed initiatives, the authority will, as always, do its best with what it has been given, but clearly these actions have a cumulative negative effect on the authority's performance.
The authority is a much easier target than the organizations and individuals which have been the source of many of its problems. Our organization is known for "leading with its chin" because we are sincere in our commitment to the Virgin Islands community. Our slogan at the Authority is "One WAPA … One Goal … Satisfied Customers," and we believe it.
The authority seeks to provide high-quality, reliable utility services, not excuses, but we do feel that the Virgin Islands community should know the facts behind some of these important issues. The issues the authority faces took 10 to 15 years to develop. It will take longer than a few months to get them solved. The authority's employees remain committed, however, to completing our comprehensive plan to resolve these issues and provide high-quality utility services to the Virgin Islands community.
If we all work together, the Virgin Islands will have a first-class utility.
Executive Director, Water and Power Authority
Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to firstname.lastname@example.org.