Senators questioned V.I. Waste Management Authority officials at length over millions of dollars still owed to trash haulers during a Friday hearing at Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
Staff shortages and the status of convenience centers for residential garbage disposal were also discussed during a wide-ranging hearing of the Committee on Housing, Transportation, Infrastructure and Telecommunications.
Waste Management Authority CEO Roger Merritt and board Chairman Keith Richards were questioned at length about the delays in payments to trash haulers dating back to the hurricanes of 2017.
The Legislature recently appropriated $15 million for the Authority to pay down the outstanding debt, but on Friday senators also asked why the agency hasn’t tapped Federal Emergency Management Agency funds of about $5 million, since some of the work was tied directly to the storms.
The matter is complicated by the fact that Merritt has been on the job for just three weeks after interim Executive Director Adrian Taylor left over the summer. Merritt previously held the post in 2016 but left in February 2018, when the territory was five months into its recovery from Irma and Maria, the back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes of September 2017 that created mountains of debris.
The Authority also is currently without a chief financial officer, chief legal counsel, chief engineer and landfill manager, though the positions are being advertised, according to Merritt. Additionally, it just closed out a search to fill 16 vacant positions in its wastewater division, he said.
Merritt said Friday that he is working with the Finance Department and meeting individually with each hauler to reconcile what is owed with their invoices. Richards said validating those invoices has been a “lengthy and protracted process,” complicated by the fact that some totals were based on rates during an emergency that does not apply in normal times.
To date, payments of $10 to $12 million have been validated, Richards said, but the Authority is reluctant to submit invoices to FEMA “with the expectation there will be a reimbursement. … We’re not sure when we’re going to get that money back.”
That didn’t sit well with Sen. Kurt Vialet, who said the $15 million the Legislature appropriated for WMA could turn into $20 million with the addition of FEMA funds.
“It’s been three years. The Waste Management Authority must get their act together,” said Vialet, who is not a committee member.
Merritt said he is working with the territory’s disaster consultant, Witt O’Brien’s, to submit affidavits on behalf of the haulers to help with gaps in the documentation for FEMA, since he was in charge during and immediately after the storms.
“It’s been a long time and it’s just unfair,” Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said.
Sen. Allison DeGazon agreed, saying the lack of payment is a deterrent to small businesses that stepped up to help without signing contracts in the aftermath of the storms.
“They’re begging for payment,” she said. “I am asking and pleading on their behalf that the culture changes.”
Part of the issue is that the majority of haulers are on month-to-month contracts, said Merritt, who told the lawmakers that he is putting out requests for proposal for multi-year contracts that will make the process more streamlined.
Senators also questioned the state of the municipal garbage bins throughout the territory, and when convenience centers will be built to handle residential trash and replace the unmanned receptacles.
Sen. Myron Jackson posted images of overflowing bins on St. Thomas and St. John and decried the “deplorable state of affairs of the territory,” of people dumping everything from furniture and tires to washing machines, mattresses and solar panels, despite signs saying only regular household waste may be discarded.
“It’s just very, very frustrating on a daily basis,” said Jackson, who was particularly concerned that Hospital Ground has become a dumping ground for refuse from all over St. Thomas. “This is our home and yes, we have some nasty people in this territory who don’t give a damn, but at the same time it is our home and that is unacceptable,” said Jackson. “I look forward to continuing working with you,” he said, particularly on a program where residents will pay for trash pickup.
The convenience centers that will replace the bins are in the planning stages, said Merritt, with construction slated to start on all three islands by the end of 2021. Currently, two exist – one in Mandahl on St. Thomas and one in Peter’s Rest on St. Croix. The additional centers will be funded with the help of a Housing Finance Authority grant, and will have integrated recycling plans, Merritt said. While recycling on the mainland reduces trash going to landfills by about 40 percent, he said, it will require educating the community “to hit those numbers” in the territory.
In the meantime, the authority’s five enforcement officers – two on St. Croix and three on St. Thomas-St. John – that normally would monitor the sites as well as businesses, but who have been enlisted to serve on the COVID-19 task force under the V.I. Police Department, has severely curtailed waste oversight and citations, Merritt said. Committee Chairman Sen. Marvin Blyden said he would seek a waiver from the government for those workers because waste has become even more of a health and safety issue during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public Works is helping in the interim, Merritt said, and the 2020-21 budget will fund two more enforcement officer positions. He also is working on a plan with the Authority’s frontline workers to encourage the community to work with WMA to keep the Virgin Islands clean.
Meanwhile, with the landfills on St. Thomas and St. Croix beyond capacity and under federal consent decrees, and the cost to construct one new acre of a landfill at $200,000, Sen. Stedmann Hodge Jr. asked about residential tipping fees.
Currently, the fees apply only to commercial haulers, Merritt said, adding that any change in that structure would have to be approved by legislation.
The commercial fees have come with their own headaches, as the Bovoni Landfill’s weigh scale is broken, so trash was measured using a volume-based assessment. That didn’t sit well with haulers on St. Croix, where the scales are working, and in 2017 they protested the difference in formulas. As a result, WMA postponed the fees until it could meet with the Public Services Commission that September. The hurricanes derailed that meeting, and he is now scheduled to meet with the PSC in November to get a volume-based methodology approved for both landfills starting in 2021, said Merritt.
Reintroduction of those fees could go a long way in helping WMA’s bottom line, Merritt said, reporting that an Aug. 1 study showed that the Bovoni Landfill generated $17,000 in tipping fees in one day using the volume-based methodology. That could translate into $5 million annually for the Authority, he said.
The full committee attended Friday’s meeting, including Vice Chair Sen. Alicia Barnes and Sen. Javan James Sr.