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PSC Wants More Power Over WAPA

The V.I. Public Services Commission wants the V.I. Legislature to change the law to give it broad authority over V.I. Water and Power planning and purchasing decisions as well as complaint resolution, PSC staff said during budget hearings Wednesday.

While it has broad regulatory power over privately owned utilities such as Vitelco and the territory’s ferry operators, V.I. law gives it only the power to set rates for the government-owned WAPA. According to a 2008 V.I. Supreme Court decision: "PSC does not have the power of general oversight over WAPA’s actions." Last December, V.I. Superior Court Judge James Carroll III rule cited the 2008 case when ruling PSC had no authority to resolve billing complaints either.

Unlike the private companies PSC regulates, the publicly-owned WAPA has its own government-appointed volunteer governing board, composed in a similar fashion as the PSC itself. The WAPA board has statutory authority over all WAPA matters—from hiring and firing its director to approving or rejecting all WAPA contracts and expenditures- a public oversight function the privately owned utilities companies do not share.

PSC member Donald "Ducks" Cole asked the Legislature to rewrite the law to give it explicit authority over WAPA’s day to day actions, contracts and policies, to give it more leverage to force WAPA to address line-loss, move to alternative sources of power generation and other priorities.

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"The court has found the PSC has authority over rates, but no authority over WAPA’s activity or lack of activity that will affect rates, Cole said.

Boyd Sprehn, an outside attorney contracted by the PSC to handle some legal matters, said he disagreed with the Supreme Court decision, which he said "essentially claimed one clause as applicable but not the rest of the paragraph."

"We have this restriction for only this one utility, which is a very bizarre approach," he said.

O’Reilly said she had tried to propose legislation, but was preempted.

"How does this affect you for budgetary needs, since your work is diminished somewhat? asked Sen. Janette Millin-Young.

"I would argue it doesn’t," replied PSC Legal Counsel Tanisha Bailey-Roka. "Complaints still come into the PSC, however we do it on a more informal basis now."

The PSC was before the Finance Committee to discuss its 2012 operating budget of $1.7 million – a slight $74,000 decrease from last year. It’s entire operating budget comes from levies against regulated utilities. The publicly owned V.I. Water and Power Authority’s customers will pay $717,000, or 41.6 percent of the PSC, budget; Vitelco telephone customers will contribute another $552,000 or 32 percent. The V.I. Waste Management Authority, another government agency, will pay the PSC $242,000 and the two Innovative cable TV companies another $166,000, with ferries making up the last few percentage points.

The PSC also makes docket specific assessments to pay outside consultants for rate investigations analysis and complaint resolutions. In 2010, the PSC assessed WAPA and its ratepayers $565,000,and Vitelco $689,000, according to information provided to the Legislature by PSC Executive Director Keithley Joseph.

Personnel wages and salaries account for $780,000, 45 percent, of the PSC budget, with benefits,and employer Social Security and Medicare contributions taking up another $269,000, or 16 percent.

No votes were taken at the information gathering hearing.

Committee members present were: O’Reilly, Millin-Young, Chairman Carlton "Ital" Dowe and Sen. Sammuel Sanes. Absent were Sens. Louis Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, and Celestino White Sr.

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