May 26, 2005 The ongoing battle between the Public Services Commission and the V.I. Water and Power Authority waged on Wednesday at a hearing called to review the utility's use of the street lighting surcharge.
The hearing was not a regularly scheduled meeting of the commission no commission members were present or overseeing it. The hearing seemed more like a scene from a courtroom, as attorney's from both sides questioned WAPA officials and the PSC's consultants from Georgetown Consulting Group before Hearing Examiner Rosalie Simmonds-Ballentine.
The PSC consultants claimed that the authority was not on target in meeting its deadlines for the repair and restoration of the territory's streetlights, and were not in compliance with the use of the streetlight funds. They recommended reducing the current surcharge from $0.0029 per kilowatt-hour to $0.0019.
WAPA officials argued they were in compliance to the best of their ability, and their failure to meet deadlines was due in part to delays of the PSC consultants. They said the surcharge at its current level is necessary and should be continued.
The responsibility of repairing and maintaining the territory's streetlights was transferred from the Public Works Department to WAPA in 2001 when Gov. Charles W. Turnbull approved legislation mandating the transfer. Although the legislation appropriated $2 million to the authority for the maintenance of the streetlights, the money was never given to WAPA, creating a burden for the utility, the PSC and consumers who must now bear the cost. Prior to the transfer, Public Works paid the cost of the streetlights from its budget.
Boyd Sprehn, legal counsel for the PSC, asked whether WAPA had engaged in an effective media campaign to inform the public about the surcharge. In his testimony, Jamshed K. Madan, PSC consultant, indicated that the authority failed to complete a link on its Web site informing ratepayers of the surcharge.
Cassandra Dunn, WAPA's corporate communications officer, said the authority had done what was required by sending out press releases, community calendar announcements, discussions on radio talk shows and conducting informational programs at community fairs.
"The Web site is still under development," Madan said when he was cross-examined by WAPA legal counsel Samuel Hall. "It's been two and a half years."
Hall asked, "Where exactly in what order of the commission was WAPA told to have a Web site for the street lighting program?"
Madan said WAPA was not asked to do so but took it upon itself and should have completed the site. He said right now there's a link on WAPA's site for a page concerning street lighting, but when you click on the link, it says the page is still under construction.
Dunn said during questioning that an e-mail address was provided for residents to submit their questions and inform the utility of which lights needed repairs. She said a copy of the requests was forwarded to the authority.
Sprehn asked WAPA Chief Executive Officer Alberto Bruno-Vega whether the utility had a special fund for collecting the streetlight revenues. Bruno-Vega said no.
"We have to maintain, as requested by the PSC, how much we receive in revenues and how much we expense," Bruno-Vega said, adding that WAPA was not told to create a separate fund for streetlight revenues.
WAPA was to have completed phase II of its streetlight program by June 5. This includes the repairs and installation of lights along the highway.
"WAPA is nowhere close to completing the restoration process," Sprehn said.
The authority maintains that Public Works is responsible for lights on the federal highways, and WAPA only assists in providing materials for those repairs. WAPA also hired Best Construction to assist Public Works and pays for their service.
Sprehn asked if WAPA could not get some of the federal funds available to help in repairing the lights on the federal highways. Bruno-Vega said former Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood told him the federal government only gave money for the installation of new lights and not for the maintenance of the existing lights.
"This should be funded by the government through taxes," Bruno-Vega said of the maintenance of streetlights. He said the streetlights should be funded from property taxes as done in the past.
He added, "I believe that that's a responsibility that falls on the government."
Simmonds-Ballentine asked, "What is the difference between the federal and local highways?"
Bruno-Vega said the federal highways had metal light poles, while the local highways had wooden poles installed by WAPA.
After several hours of questioning and cross-examination back and forth, the group recessed to continue the hearing on Friday. Once the hearing is completed, Simmonds-Ballentine will present a report with recommendations to the PSC.
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