ST. THOMAS – Members of the 33rd Legislature led by Senate President Novelle E. Francis, Jr. convened in Committee of the Whole at the Capitol Building on Friday to receive an update on the status of WAPA regarding operations, financial management, use of federal funds, billing, issuance of credits, power outages, and capital projects. Lawmakers also received testimony on Bill No. 33-0346- An Act establishing a Management and Oversight Review Committee for the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA). Invited testifiers were officials from the Authority, the WAPA Governing Board, and the Public Service Commission (PSC).
As a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Authority partially shifted employees from office operations to teleworking with a call-in only customer service model. To ensure safety for the employees and patrons onsite, temperature screenings are conducted, hand sanitizer dispensers are accessible, and masks along with gloves are disseminated daily; according to Kupfer. Sen. Francis expressed dissatisfaction with the poor customer service at the Authority. “WAPA has a history of deplorable customer service. Generally, when a customer calls, they are greeted with an automated machine and the chances of speaking to a representative are very low. Customer service is worth probing because there are a lot of issues.”
Separately, Kupfer mentioned that progress was made with the billing process, meters were accessed and replaced as needed, and there is a reduction in the monthly bills distributed to consumers. To prevent additional power outages in the St. Croix District and the St. Thomas-St. John District, the Authority repaired equipment such as the switchgear that feeds the electricity at the plant and the generator breaker for Unit 15. Regarding federal funds, Kupfer noted that FEMA obligated $529.5 million for emergency work projects; with only $469.5 million disseminated thus far. Additionally, FEMA allotted $500.9 million in obligated permanent work projects with $337.7 million distributed. Some of the Disaster Recovery related projects are the installation of composite poles, underground utility lines, and the submarine transmission system.
Bill 33-0346, which is proposed by Senators Janelle Sarauw, Donna Frett-Gregory, and Kurt Vialet seeks to replace the current WAPA Board with a new Management Oversight Committee to ensure the proper management of the Authority. Sen. Sarauw defended the bill by addressing the constant deficiencies of the Authority. “WAPA has become a life or death issue. WAPA is a public health issue. WAPA bills customers sporadically, bills without probable cause, and send out bills for three prior months. The legalization of this structure is a problem. The people of the Virgin Islands are exhausted. Bill No. 33-0346 comes in to save WAPA from itself,” Sen. Sarauw said. Similarly, Sen. Kenneth Gittens shared the same sentiment. “WAPA continues to fail, fail, fail. There is a problem with the management.”
However, PSC Executive Director Donald Cole indicated that with the newly specified criteria, it will be challenging to fill Board positions due to the high level of skills and experience required to meet qualifications of becoming a member. Furthermore, Cole stated that there are provisions in the bill that already exist such as Act 7075 to develop an energy plan to determine appropriate and fair base rates. Sen. Oakland Benta queried the effects of the bill if signed into law. WAPA Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer noted that the measure may raise concerns with federally funded projects, specifically from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and US Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Approval from FEMA and HUD are necessary.