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Legislature Gives PSC Power to Settle Billing Complaints

The V.I. Legislature voted in regular session last week to give the V.I. Public Services Commission direct authority to regulate water supply billing and services.

"This measure comes after the courts determined the PSC did not have legal authority to settle billing disputes," said Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, the measure’s sponsor.

In March, the V.I. Supreme Court upheld a 2010 V.I. Superior Court decision vacating a 1993 PSC order directing WAPA to change a customer’s bill. (The case languished for many years before being heard.) The March decision and the Superior Court’s decision were both grounded upon the 2008 V.I. Supreme Court decision.

V.I. Public Services Commission v. V.I. Water and Power Authority, which determined the law, gave the PSC authority only to set rates for WAPA, and instead gave WAPA’s governing board broad powers over the government-owned utility.

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The measure approved by the Legislature means the 2010 and 2008 Supreme Court decisions would not apply to future billing disputes, if it is signed into law by the governor. It also gives the PSC and the WAPA governing board overlapping authority over the same subject matter.

The WAPA board is constructed very similarly to the PSC, with volunteer members appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature, as well as ex officio members, who are automatically on the board because of their job titles. V.I. law gives the WAPA board broad power over all major WAPA decision making.

There was no hearing or testimony on the question, as the measure was one of was one of a slew of unrelated amendments attached to a bill increasing the cap on V.I. Housing Finance Authority home loans from the current $125,000 to $220,000.

The government will pick up $103,000 in legal bills for Leon Kendall, former Superior Court judge, who was convicted of indirect criminal contempt in October 2011, if an amendment from Sen. Carlton "Ital" Dowe is signed into law with the bill.

"I am not in business of determining if Judge Kendall right or wrong," Dowe said in support of the amendment. "But he has to have legal counsel; he was the presiding judge of the Superior Court." While the appropriation is new, Dowe said some of the bills had been paid already, with about $30,000 left to be paid.

The Legislature also approved amendments:

– from O’Reilly to allow V.I. hospitals to sell debts delinquent for more than a year to debt collectors;
– from O’Reilly re-appropriating $50,000 from funds leftover from road work in Estate Mary’s Fancy to Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital to implement a mammography program;
– from Dowe appropriating $150,000 from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund to the V.I. Joint Boards of Elections to conduct the 2012 primary election;
– from Dowe and Sen. Patrick Simeon-Sprauve re-appropriating $1.2 million from renovations to the Juan Luis Hospital emergency room to instead go to hospital operating expenses;
– and several other amendments of a more technical nature.

Voting in favor of the bill as amended were Dowe, Hill, O’Reilly, Sens. Louis Patrick Hill, Neville James, Shawn-Michael Malone, Sammuel Sanes, Ronald Russell, Usie Richards and Alvin Williams.
Voting nay were Sens. Celestino White, Janette Millin-Young and Terrence "Positive" Nelson. Sen. Barshinger abstained, objecting to the appropriation from the St. John Capital Improvement Fund.

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