Opinion: After Sweet Meat Comes Sour Sauce (Senators Please Stop Playing Games and Be Responsible With WAPA)

The abandoned St. Croix Legislature Building in March, 2018

If your car needs gas and a new oil pump but gas is expensive, is it “unfair” to put the bill for both on the “back” of you, the car owner? No. If you tried to argue with the mechanics that they should pay for it because you are noble, put-upon and long suffering, you’d just make a clown of yourself. If, to save money, you refused to fix the car, no one would be surprised when the engine seized and you had to take out a big loan to get a new engine. Your friends would roll their eyes at you and snicker behind your back – or to your face – at your foolishness.

Everyone knows the rising cost of oil has led to the rising cost of electricity. Yet speaking of the publicly owned utility in bitter, conspiratorial terms is a V.I. pastime that crosses all demographic lines. It’s bigger than baseball.

Preening about, pretending to be a hero of the people by starving the utility of funds, thus ensuring the people will pay more in the long run, has long been a favorite pastime of senators. Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen perfected this vomitous theatrical art, working for years to starve and cripple the people’s electric utility in the name of the people.

She’s gone for now, rejected soundly by V.I. voters in her bid for higher office. But a big new crop of senators came into office two months ago. The winds of change were in the air. It looks like the winds have changed back and the forecast is more of the same old swampy smell.

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At a recent hearing, WAPA officials said the publicly owned utility is in dire financial condition, slowing progress on making itself more efficient and reliable. WAPA owes its fuel suppliers around $42 million. The suppliers require payment before delivery and have threatened to cut WAPA off for nonpayment. In addition, WAPA is unable to pay its $30 million for an annual infrastructure lease payment to VITOL. It already owes $53 million and the amount is rising rapidly.

WAPA owes other vendors more than $110 million and its pension liability to GERS is $396 million.

Senators were okay with WAPA begging for more federal funds. And yes, it should go begging. Let’s wish it luck with that.

But new senators also showed they are ready to play the same old game of pretending unavoidable expenses are an “injustice;” the same game of pretending WAPA is not owned by the government but maybe by some foreign billionaire with magical pots of money; the same game of pretending that if you shout and feign outrage about something maybe in the past that you pretend would have magically fixed it all, no one will have to actually pay now.

As much as some V.I. elected officials like to pretend otherwise, WAPA is owned by the people of the Virgin Islands. It is not some distant, colonialist multinational corporation. There is a Crucian expression: “with sweet meat come sour sauce.” If you take the easy road, there will be a reckoning. You have to pay the piper. The bills come due. Pretending to give free money to everyone is sweet meat indeed. But if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can’t then clutch your hair and beat your breast about how unfair it is that Peter is poor.

At a recent hearing, freshman Sen. Alicia Barnes said the budget shortfalls “cannot be addressed on the backs of the ratepayers. It is unacceptable.”

Unacceptable? Senator, you have a college degree. You have headed a government agency before – DPNR. You understand basic arithmetic. “The backs of the ratepayers” is the only place the funding to pay electric bills will come from. Just like the back of the car owner is the only place the money for fixing a car’s oil pump or filling its tank will come from. That’s how paying for services works. But you surely already know that. Which means it’s a show. All that’s missing is a trapeze act.

Freshman Sen. Oakland Benta said “community members feel WAPA is doing them an injustice.” Maybe people do “feel” that way. But words have meanings. Electricity is very expensive. Paying the bill hurts for most Virgin Islanders. The vast majority of us forego air conditioning in the heat of summer and line-dry clothes to avoid disastrously high bills. But “difficult” and “painful” do not mean the same thing as “unjust.” That’s just the word a lazy person uses to justify and feel good about not doing what must be done. Being falsely accused of a crime – that’s unjust. Being denied a fair wage while others less deserving get more – that’s unjust. Stiffing the agency owned by the public so that the same public will have to pay even more later, is not standing up for justice. It’s just irresponsible. We need to take the bitter medicine now or the patient’s condition will get worse and worse.

The Chevrolet Caprice Classic, the most popular car in America in the mid 1970s, got 12 miles per gallon new and less once it was thoroughly broken in. (Wikimedia photo)

The (government owned) hospitals simply ignore their utility bills, as do some government agencies. And for decades, the Legislature and Public Services Commission have often worked to shave a little off what Virgin Islanders have to pay right away each month, at the expense of what they will have to pay in the long run. Starved for funds, the utility has put off maintenance and purchase of more efficient or alternative generating capacity. In recent years some in both bodies point fingers, saying WAPA should have become more efficient years ago, so people shouldn’t have to pay now. It’s like if you nursed a gas-guzzling 1970s Caprice Classic to avoid buying a new car, then yelled at the clouds about the injustice of filling your tank.

There was never a good time for disingenuous grandstanding or phony, empty populism. But times are now especially serious. The territory’s finances are not in order. WAPA’s finances and power plants need help. On the day the power goes out, grandstanding and pointing fingers might win some votes. But being elected to represent the people is not just an extremely well compensated sinecure with a fat office budget and high social status. It is a great honor. One that carries with it great responsibility. Being responsible sometimes means not eating that sweet meat because you know it will lead to sour sauce. Please be responsible.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. The person in charge at the helm of wapa gets paid $340,000 a year plus perks. Why are they paying someone that kind of money? Is he a genius? Why do we continue to owe? Is someone forecasting rising cost and revenues on a monthly base and planning accordingly? Suggestions:Open another utility company and separate the government entities from the private citizens. Get the elephant off our backs. If the government’s yearly budget is correct, each government department should pay up front quarterly, the cost to use electricity. October,!February, May and August checks should be ready to go out. Adjustments made monthly based on useage. Your department uses too much electricity, it comes out of your budget. Low usage it adds to your budget. It is only when government entities feel what we , the citizens , feel , they will stop their nonsense. This sugar daddy government is bullying the citizens of the Virgin Islands in paying their portion of the WAPA utilities so they could squander money on cars, gas, lunches, bonuses , trips, etc.
    Same for GRS, we are taking from Peter to Paul. Just a matter of time before someone ends up with the short end of the stick. Suggestion: Cut all retirees pay 10% if their check exceeds $40,000 per year. 15% for $80,000 plus and 20% for $100,000 plus. Five Years before retiring present employees of the government will pay an additional yearly payment that will come out of their pay bi-weekly. Example:if you make a 100,000, you pay 10,000 extra a year or $384.61 bi-weekly.
    It is a big pill to swallow but it is better than no retirement at all.
    Another note: I remembered senators bamboozaling Mr Nibs to open a grocery store a few years ago. He was not receptive but the senators kept pushing. Well , we lost 11 million. No one was monitoring our investments. They should of shut down this business and cut losses before it got to 11 million. We are talking about 11 million!!! GRS should of invested in a government complex and rented offices to the government with the 11,000,000. Oh sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Dumb idea. The government does”t pay it’s bills to itself only to the private landlords. How could I have forgotten. They steal from themselves and wonder why they are always coming up short.

  2. i have never understood why WAPA can’t collect from the government departments so deeply in debt to it. Why is there never a crackdown on the delinquent agencies? It would boost WAPA’s coffers appreciably.

  3. The problem is that ALL of the people whose decisions have led up to the current government fiscal “crisis” (if there truly is one) are not being held accountable. They are allowed to skim and embezzle and misappropriate funds with no repercussions. And after a suitable period of time, they show up again like bad pennies, to run for office or get recycled as top executives in various agencies. Remember the fire at Subbase which destroyed the records a few years back? Therefore no audit of WAPA financials. Would not be surprised is Hugo Hodge shows up somewhere in VI government in a position of authority. Remember Celestino White grandstanding to oust the WAPA president at the time because he was making positive changes, and that was a big NO-NO. And forget privatizing WAPA. The VI government would never allow that as it would require them to actually pay a bill.The current WAPA President seems to be competent, and trying to turn the ship around. We will see how far he is allowed to go by the powers that be. Any elected officials here are bound and beholden to special interest groups. There is very little change that will occur to affect these groups. The ones who will pay are visitors, tourists and those who are not ‘blessed.’

  4. Sad. Very Sad. But so true. Every department in government have leaders that exploit their position, spend money, like crazy, cook the books, buy all kinds of stuff they don’t need and waste, steal, manipulate with no accountability. Who is watching? Who is monitoring? Who cares? No accountability. No prosecutions. No repercussions for illegal acts. It is how things are done in American Paradise. Remembered a man calling the radio station and stated that he was glad that the government was so lax because if they weren’t, most of his family would be in jail. Imagine saying that on air. Most people would find that to be funny but I find it repugnant. Something must be wrong with me.

  5. lets not forget a few years ago when oil prices dropped low but wapa couldn’t lower our rates because they already owed 24 million for oil now its years later and oil prices have dropped again for about a year plus no relief in site now they owe 42 million what gives

  6. So WAPA sold its solar field, a source of free, plentiful power here, to Richard Branson? No doubt the British Virgin Islands will go totally solar/wind in the future. WAPA doesn’t appear to care what consumers pay for energy. It’s all about their profit always.

  7. In reading through this opinion I am at a loss for words….

    WAPA has had a long history of bait and switch with services and rate promises to the USVI. The much touted propane conversion that STILL is not finished was supposed to drop rates and in part was funded through increased rates was supposed to drop power bills, hasnt happened. Solar farms before the storm and now a rebuild and expansion since storms same promises with same results.

    The author snickers at Sen. Barnes making the comment that the public should not be forced to bear the brunt of cost due to budgetary short falls, he points out costs of oil as it relates to price per kilowatt hr. How is it that other power utilities then can generate power and make a profit charging roughly 1/4 to 1/5 of WAPA’s rate.

    The author in part wants to point a finger of blame and shame to everyone BUT WAPA.
    2.3 million dollars gone through a phishing scam, really?!? What about the pending suit filed by 2 whistleblowers that is in part stating what many have felt for years, WAPA uses scare tactics to get the PSC to pass rate increases to cover up gross mismanagement and poor business decisions. I would ask why the public and businesses of the USVI should be forced to subsidize WAPAs failures ?

    The audacity of WAPA to goto the PSC to again drives rates up to a alltime high while the islands are in recovery and then having to admit the loss of 2.3 million dollars through the most basic of scams shows that the management of WAPA is not able to do their jobs. WAPA should be forced to open their books for a comprehensive audit and until they do the PSC needs to refuse any requests for rate increases…

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