Tension ran high Friday as Senators, meeting as the Committee of the Whole, grilled officials of the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority, and decorum was relegated to the background. Online viewers commented that the meeting was more of a “melee.”
WAPA officials in turn accused senators of asking questions, then talking over their responses and not allowing them to answer, but Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., chairman of the committee, said perhaps the entire discussion needed some context, as the problems with WAPA concern 44,000 residential and 8,000 commercial customers.
“The board has oversight responsibility. WAPA spoke about the need for propane; there was a project developed for that propane through VITOL. WAPA complained about the government owing them money for a number of years. There was almost $28 million that was paid to WAPA, with an additional $2 million advanced payment. They came back, and we gave them $6 million. You went and charged consumers, to include you, myself, and everyone in this community, a 60-day bill. The governor turned around and gave, through the CARES Act, an additional $15.5 million. Are we going to continue to go down the cliff with WAPA,” Francis said.
WAPA Board Chair Anthony Thomas said he had an issue with Francis leading the meeting and that the chair was not allowing the time to respond to the various concerns raised by Francis on behalf of the public. Thomas accused the senators of “taking shots” at the authority instead of hearing the officials out.
But Francis dismissed Thomas’s concerns and said the public has not seen the results of the years’ worth of promises made by WAPA. He said he is unsure who would want to expend anymore “political capital on this foolishness.”
Sen. Alicia Barnes said WAPA’s submittal to the Public Services Commission for the LEAC rate increase for the period of July to December 2020 is the most recent reason the public has a trust issue with the authority.
The submittal was of the LEAC rate component which historically was at 15.20 cents, the rate at the time of the submittal was 15.52 cents, and then the proposed LEAC rate would go down to 12.58 cents. But WAPA added a “Normalized Recovery of Deferred Fuel Balance” that took the rate up to 19.83 cents.
Currently, the rate has been adjusted to 14.9 cents, WAPA CEO Lawrence Kupfer said.
“I would dare say a lot of that (lower rate change) is a result of what we did as this body to push back on the LEAC filing that you made to the PSC that was in fact disingenuous,” Barnes said.
“Because what you did is that you took the fuel savings at the time, and you added the deferred fuel costs to put it up to 19 cents, and then tell us ‘you like us so much’ you are going to keep it at 16 cents. When in reality we needed to see at least a two-cent reduction in the LEAC, and that is ultimately what happened because of the insistence of this body and namely this senator.”
But Sen. Janelle Sarauw said the only thing that would be disingenuous is if the Legislature failed to mention that there was a proposal for a comprehensive approach to the management of the authority, but members of the body “did not agree to it and wanted to push their particular bill only in the committee, and did not want a comprehensive approach.”
Sarauw said the bill she sponsored, Bill No. 33-0055, was the bill that would have strengthened the PSC and came long before other senator’s bills pertaining to oversight of the authority.
Francis said he wouldn’t indulge any “tit for tat” discussions, which resulted in a loud exchange between several senators who ultimately left the floor for a period of time.
Sen. Myron Jackson, who was the next senator permitted to speak, had to fight to get a word in and implored committee members not to leave as there would be no quorum, which is required for a legislative hearing.
The hearing had been called to question WAPA officials about various pieces of legislation that would attempt to regulate both the authority and its board. But with emotions at an all-time high, much of what was discussed became diluted through what some of the 120 virtual public viewers called “senator temper tantrums,” and “melee on the floor of the donkey barn.”
Sens. Janelle Sarauw, Novelle Francis Jr., Athneil Thomas, Dwayne DeGraff, Oakland Benta, Stedmann Hodge, Javan James Sr., Marvin Blyden, Myron Jackson, Kurt Vialet, Alicia Barnes, Allison DeGazon, Donna Frett-Gregory, Kenneth Gittens, and Steven Payne Sr., were all present for the hearing.
Editor’s Note: The amount given WAPA through the CARES Act was $15.5 million. We initially gave an incorrect number. Also, while the senators’ discussion of the history of the recent LEAC filings is accurately reported, the senators leave out important context.