Senators became heated as they gathered for legislative session on Thursday to vote on a measure to bail out WAPA with a good faith payment of $45 million to propane supplier Vitol.
Bill No.35-0070 is an act authorizing the governor to utilize monies from public funds to create working capital and issue a line of credit of $150 million. Of that overall total, $45 million is to be allotted to WAPA to begin settlement of the Vitol deal. The act also discharges any obligations of the government for the next three years, beginning in 2023.
Originally proposed April 5 in a special session, the WAPA bill was sponsored on behalf of Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. by his financial administration team and CEO of WAPA, Andrew Smith, and was held in committee pending amendments made at Friday’s hearing.
WAPA needed about $45 million to make a good faith payment to Vitol by Friday’s deadline for the storage facilities it built under a 2014 contract that allowed the utility to convert to a predominantly propane operation versus diesel, which is about two times more costly than liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG. The latter is also a cleaner-burning fuel.
Sen. Alama Francis-Heyliger shared her concerns about the line of credit and the money to WAPA on Friday. “It’s one thing when you ask this institution to co-sign to give you authority to get money but it’s one thing when this institution is consistently asking for documentation so we could make responsible decisions on behalf of the people and that information is hardly or never forthcoming,” she said.
During last week’s special session, CFO of WAPA, Jacob Lewis, stated that the sum of the money owed to Vitol is based on a contractual agreement and that WAPA does not have documentation outside of the contract to prove money is owed.
Sen. Franklin D. Johnson said during Friday’s hearing, “Anytime somebody could tell us that we actually owe $300 million and somebody who is owed $300 million say to you, ‘well gimme $145,’ that raises a lot of eyebrows. People don’t walk away from that kind of money.”
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory questioned her colleagues’ politics. “There are colleagues in here who are talking different about this measure this evening, colleagues who convinced me that was the right thing to do,” she said.
Frett-Gregory stated that they worked together on the governor’s bill to come up with amendments to “safeguard and ensure we protect the people of the Virgin Island’s money.”
According to Frett-Gregory, a bill was created in the nature of a substitute for the WAPA measure, which also reduced the line of credit to $100 million. WAPA will be placed on a hiring freeze until it enters into a contractual agreement to hire a turnaround management company. The executive branch will be in charge of getting and managing the turnaround company and must submit reports to the Legislature.
When it came time to read the amendment of the WAPA bill into the record, several objections were made, prolonging the overall vote on the bill. With the amendment added to the WAPA measure, it was passed 11 to 4. Voting against the bill were Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Dwayne DeGraff, Francis-Heyliger, and Johnson.
In response to the governor’s bill, Gittens’s Bill No. 35-0061 was added to Friday’s agenda. This is an act appropriating $250,000 to have the Inspector General’s Office conduct a special investigation and audit of WAPA. He also added an amendment to include the construction, maintenance, and LPG supply into the bill.
“Who does sign a deal without seeing what the deal is all about? We are working on the people behalf,” said Gittens.
Gittens recently had the investigation bill passed in the 34th Legislature but it was vetoed by the governor in January. With all 15 senators voting in the affirmative, the bill was passed unanimously yet again.
Sens. Novelle E. Francis Jr., Marvin A. Blyden, Carla Joseph, Angel L. Bolques Jr., Alma Francis-Heyliger, Donna Frett-Gregory, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Diane T. Capehart, Samuel Carrion, Kenneth L. Gittens, Javan E. James Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, Milton Potter, Ray Fonseca, and Marise C. James were present at Friday’s session.