Aug. 27, 2008 — In this year's State of the Territory Address, Gov. John deJongh Jr. laid out plans to restructure the Waste Management Authority and set it up as a new office within the central government, and before leaving the territory Tuesday, he submitted a bill to the Legislature to do just that.
Though WMA is currently a semi-autonomous agency, it still gets most of its money from the General Fund and other central government accounts. While authority officials have said that years' worth of budget cuts have prevented WMA from moving forward with all of its mandates, some senators have argued that WMA has historically had problems with managing its money and has failed in its attempts to become self-sufficient. Much concern was also generated late last year after WMA officials appeared before the Public Services Commission to defend an environmental user fee proposal that was part of the initial legislation that set up the autonomous agency — designed to cover the territory's solid waste costs. The proposal prompted senators to pass an amendment eliminating the authority's ability to implement the environmental user fee that they themselves had designed.
DeJongh subsequently signed the amendment into law, saying that any fee schedule set up by the authority should not "unduly burden" local residents or impact "interstate and international commerce." The proposed fees "clearly did not meet these standards," the governor wrote to Senate President Usie R. Richards in December.
Until the territory's solid waste management system can stand on its own without taking any money from the General Fund, it is necessary to restructure the agency and set it up as a cabinet-level department that would function under "clear lines of accountability and fiscal oversight that are currently lacking at the most fundamental levels," deJongh wrote Tuesday in a letter sent to Richards along with the bill.
"Under this new agency, the territory will be better equipped to develop solid waste management policies without undermining its fiscal duties," he said. "The issues surrounding both solid waste and wastewater management are complex and capital intensive. The authoritys operating budget is derived from the General Fund and its capital requirements will be served through bonds of the government in the same fashion as all executive branch agencies. However, the fiscal policies of the central government cannot be imposed upon the authority, due to its status as a semi-autonomous agency.
The bill seeks to correct this "structural imbalance," deJongh said. It would also allow the new V.I. Waste Management Agency to better coordinate its policies with other branches of government, he added.
"Presently, the authoritys policies are set by an independent board which may conflict with the policies of the central government," he explained. "This lack of coordination can only serve to undermine the cohesive development of solid waste policies with other policies established for the territory."
While under Public Works, the territory's waste management system came under several consent decrees that were passed on to the WMA.
"By retaining the concept of an agency that is solely devoted to waste management, we avoid the pitfalls of the past, while correcting the problems discussed above," deJongh wrote Tuesday. "Finally, the measure returns the regulation of septic systems to the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. Although these duties were placed in the hands of the authority, the personnel and other infrastructure were not transferred and therefore the authority was unable to implement septic system programs."
The bill calls for the director of the V.I. Waste Management Agency to be appointed by the government and confirmed by the Legislature. The agency would be able to develop its own fees and policies it its rules and regulations, instead of being subject to regulation by the Public Services Commission. However, public hearings to give residents input on proposed fee structures are required, the bill states. The agency will also have to go through the government's procurement process for expenditures above $100,000.
"This exception is made in recognition that the Agency must be able to quickly procure materials, equipment, and/or services in the event of a line break or equipment malfunction which requires immediate attention," deJongh wrote. "Without such flexibility, the government may face additional violations of federal law due to delayed response to sewage spills." The agency will also be responsible for the collection and removal of animal carcasses, he added.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been told about the plans to restructure WMA and has not yet "voiced any objections," deJongh wrote Tuesday, as he asked senators to act quickly on the bill.
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