A long, drawn-out battle between the U.S. Virgin Islands Public Service Commission and the Water and Power Authority came closer to a conclusion Friday when the Senate Committee on Rules and Judiciary approved Bill 33-0055.
While some see the legislation as long overdue, others say the bill only duplicates the powers of WAPA’s governing board and adds another layer of bureaucracy to an already volatile situation.
The two entities have battled it out in the Virgin Islands court system since 1993 when a complaint was filed with the PSC about a faulty water meter that resulted in inaccurate water bills. When the PSC ordered WAPA to correct the account, WAPA moved for a reconsideration, which was denied, leaving WAPA to appeal in Superior Court.
Since then V.I. Supreme Court rulings have come down concluding the Public Services Commission has jurisdiction only over rate-setting and not billing disputes.
Ultimately, the squabbling between the entities comes at a cost to the ratepayer.
WAPA’s Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer said millions of dollars have already been expended on “exorbitant PSC regulatory costs,” of which ratepayers “currently bear and have borne for decades for the PSC’s consultants.” Over the past five years, Kupfer said WAPA and its ratepayers have paid the PSC over $8.6 million in docket and annual assessments.
PSC Executive Director Donald Cole said the Virgin Islands Supreme Court found that WAPA is not accountable to the PSC and is not subject to the normal regulation of a public utility, and because of this finding, “The results to date have been disastrous.”
The newly advanced legislation, proposed by Sen. Janelle Sarauw, could change everything. But with these changes, Kupfer foresees higher costs to ratepayers.
“Broad regulatory power will lead to further conflict, litigation, and higher costs when PSC commissioners seek to make decisions, that they may not be either qualified nor competent to make about the operations of WAPA, and where their decisions are opposed by WAPA’s Governing Board. These higher costs will ultimately be borne by WAPA ratepayer-owners if this bill is enacted into law,” Kupfer said.
Though the legislation and its amendment offered during Friday’s hearing intends to support the ratepayer in a variety of ways, Kupfer said it will do little to help alleviate the plight ratepayers continue to have with the territory’s utilities.
“The fundamental false premise of the proposed bill is that giving the PSC broad regulatory power over WAPA will increase the likelihood that WAPA will operate more efficiently and at a lower cost,” Kupfer said. “In fact, just the opposite will occur as the PSC commissioners and WAPA’s Governing Board fight over the limits of their power. It bears noting that most of the difficulties that plague WAPA are unrelated to the scope of the PSC’s authority. Changing the PSC’s scope will not cause improvement.”
Though WAPA executives stood firm in their belief that the bill would not help the ratepayer, PSC officials unsurprisingly took an entirely different stance.
Cole said the recommended changes were “15 years in the making” and the bill’s proposed changes were “accurate and long overdue.”
The legislation, though primarily about PSC oversight power of the WAPA board, also speaks to additional powers given to the PSC such as granting oversight on wireless telecommunication providers specific to service issues.
The PSC would be permitted to compile all consumer complaints in an attempt to resolve customer issues. If the PSC finds a pattern of customer abuse it may initiate investigations and, under the proposed bill, is granted access to the provider’s accounts, books, and documents as it relates to Virgin Islands residents.
Additional powers would be granted to the PSC that skate around the “Dig Once” bill, which has yet to be enacted. If bill 33-0055 is enacted, underground authority and jurisdiction would be given to the PSC that would be responsible for maintaining a list of entities seeking permission to dig and will notify entities of planned undergrounding.
Under the bill, entities wanting to dig must contact both the PSC and the Department of Public Works. But it is the PSC that would conclude if the proposed digs are “cost-effective and as inclusive as practicable.”
The legislation aims to solve this problem by placing the responsibility of these trenching and undergrounding projects with the PSC.
Cole said in addition to the marring of infrastructure these projects produce, the “separate trenches increase the overall costs to ratepayers and increases the likelihood that one utility will damage another’s cables. We have seen that played out before this body in prior testimony and accusations of sabotage.”
Sarauw said it is problems like the aforementioned that a consumer must be protected from and that is what the legislation is intended to do.
In addition to the advancement of Bill 33-0055, numerous other bills were also forwarded to the full body for final review.
Sens. Janelle Sarauw, Myron Jackson, Novelle Francis Jr., and Javan James Sr. were present for the hearing. Sens. Alicia Barnes, Steven Payne Sr., and Kenneth Gittens were absent.