Senate Panel OKs Comprehensive WAPA Oversight Bill

Sen. Janelle Sarauw presents Bill No. 34-0021 during Friday’s committee. (Legislature Photo)

Legislation to provide the Public Service Commission with regulatory powers over the Water and Power Authority has long been discussed by the Legislature – vetted, held, and reworked numerous times. Friday the measure was approved by the Senate Committee on Government Operations and Consumer Affairs and moved on to the Rule Committee.

The legislation proposed by Sens. Janelle Sarauw and Javan James Sr. would establish the commission as a semi-autonomous agency of the Government of the Virgin Islands, giving the commission the ability to sue public utilities on behalf of the public, including the Waste Management Authority, WAPA, and underground utilities such as telecommunication providers.

Public Service Commission Executive Director Donald Cole said that for years the commission has sought legislation allowing the commission greater oversight over the territory’s public utilities.

The Water and Power Authority, on the other hand, firmly resisted any further regulatory power over the authority.

“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 have a lower cost,” the authority’s interim Executive Director Noel Hodge said. “In fact, just the opposite will occur as the PSC commissioners and WAPA Governing Board fight over the limits of their power.”

Several senators took offense to Hodge’s comments.

“You have people out there making minimum wage and their entire check is their utility bill. That can’t be OK,” said Sarauw, who is not a member of the committee but took part in the discussion as one of the bill’s sponsors. “We are talking about false premises, but everything about WAPA was a false premise … The noose around the Virgin Islands neck and the way to revive our economy is to fix our energy infrastructure. We can talk about all the workforce development we want, but people can not afford to live and do business in the territory. That is the crux of the matter.”

Should the bill be signed into law the Public Service Commission would be responsible for a multitude of oversight protections that aim to benefit the residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, not just broad oversight of the authority.

After its most recent revision, the comprehensive bill would add the responsibility of Waste Management Authority oversight. Sarauw said oversight of Waste Management was prudent when considering the future.

“The PSC objects to the Waste Management component, but as a visionary and thinking 20 to 40 years ahead, we know that waste to energy will happen,” Sarauw said. “40 years ago, we didn’t even think we would have electric cars, but as we continue to evolve as a society, we notice that things can happen. We wanted to not wait till after the fact but be proactive and tie in the Waste Management authority with the PSC so when the time comes the groundwork has already been laid.”

Cole said the commission’s objection to having the responsibility of overseeing the Waste Management Authority was that the utility, unlike all others in the territory, does not rely on rates and fees, but an allocation of funds from the government.

“It would pose an enormous challenge … to meet the mandates of public service compliance with the laws and regulations and reasonable rates, when so much of the budget is set by appropriation,” Cole said.

On the other hand, the commission welcomed the responsibility of overseeing the territory’s underground utilities.

“Although this section is late, it is important that limited funds not be wasted on repetitive undergrounding, needlessly damaging roadways, and impeding traffic,” Cole said. “Because this has not been passed, we have already seen stretches of roadways that have three trenches dug into them, occasionally cutting previously unground line.”

The legislation was approved with six senators in favor. Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger abstained.

Separately, the committee advanced Bill No. 34-0019, which commends Ronaqua Russell, who became the first African-American female aviator in the United States Coast Guard to receive an Air Medal.

Both bills were forward to the Rules and Judiciary Committee for further review.

Sens. Heyliger, James, Carla Joseph, Novelle Francis Jr., Marvin Blyden, Milton Potter and Franklin Johnson were present for the hearing. Non-committee members also were present.