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HomeNewsArchivesWAPA BOARD VOTES TO 'SHOVE' THE GOVERNMENT

WAPA BOARD VOTES TO 'SHOVE' THE GOVERNMENT

May 17, 2001 – "A leader among Caribbean utilities. Highly visible and recognized in the community. Meets customer needs. Improved working relationship with V.I. government … We listen, we respond – reliable, valuable quality service."
What entity could this be?
According to a five-year plan put together by a Water and Power Authority management team and a utilities consultant, this is WAPA in 2006.
And, toward that end, the WAPA of today is laying down the law to the V.I. government about its massive indebtedness.
At its monthly meeting Thursday, the WAPA Governing Board approved by 4-1 a motion by G. Luz James Sr. to give the government 30 days to pay current bills or face disconnection. The motion was amended to give the utility's executive director the discretionary authority to determine the flexibility and timing of the policy.
WAPA's new executive director, Joseph Thomas, had said earlier in the meeting that he had a long-term plan which would include progressively more severe measures before cutoff of service. "I need a clean piece of paper to define what we know to be true," he told the board. "There's some questions about FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] funds to be cleared up. I'll have it in two to three weeks, I promise you."
He added, "Shutting off service doesn't benefit anybody."
James's motion came after extensive discussion of how to deal with the government debt, placed at $25.7 million on May 8 by WAPA controller Maurice Sebastien.
Board member J. Arthur Downing commented, "Every meeting is the same: no action. When push comes to shove, there's no shove." He cited a March 19 letter from Gov. Charles W. Turnbull promising action on the government's accounts — the result since then being no action.
At that point, James said "Cut them all off" and made his motion. Hearing no second, he then announced he was going home. But there had been a second, by Alphonso Franklin, and the motion passed 4-1 with Downing casting the "no" vote and James, Franklin, board chair Carol Burke and William A. Lomax voting in favor.
Absent from the meeting were the two sitting Turnbull administration representatives — Commissioners Ira Hobson of Housing, Parks and Recreation and Andrew Rutnik of Licensing and Consumer Affairs. No replacement has been named for Dean Plaskett of Licensing and Consumer Affairs, who resigned effective April 17.
Board member Claude A. "Tappy" Molloy Sr. was absent for the vote, having exited the meeting earlier for reasons not immediately apparent. This had left the board without a quorum until James appeared minutes later.
Thomas pointed out, "Historically, when government service is cut off, we don't touch the critical agencies – police, fire, hospitals and schools." However, he added, non-critical areas of those entities would not be exempt.
Sebastien said said the four segments of the government were about 50 percent past due in their accounts.
Sebastien told the board that the authority had gotten good marks at a recent meeting in New York he had with WAPA financial consultants. "Our triple-B bond rating will be sustained," he said, "but they're worried about the government debt."
The bad news for customers, he said, is that there has been a "slight" increase in the levelized energy adjustment, which will be reflected in July's WAPA bills. He said he would know the precise amount of the increase by Friday.
Thomas, who has been on the job for one week, said the recent water crisis on St. John is over. Rationing has ended, he said, and reserves, which had been at 58 percent, are now at 84 percent. He said Unit 17 is fully operational, Unit 16 will now go into maintenance, and a new Unit 22 will be in service within 60 days.
Summarizing his ideas for improving of WAPA, Thomas outlined six functional areas and one new one, referring to them as "boxes." The existing areas are finance, human resources (including safety, planning and performance), legal, customer service and operations. "There's plenty of passion to go around," he commented. "I have to identify which talent to lead the boxes." The new one is a public affairs office.
Thomas said his overall strategy for the authority is to change it from a "reactive agency to a pre-emptive one — to try to get ahead of problems" before they happen. He said hazard planning before storms is high on his list.
As for public affairs, "One of our main problems is we're not getting the message out," he said. "We need to communicate." He plans to set up a speakers bureau to provide WAPA officials to give talks to community groups. "We need to tell them what's going on before we're called into hearings," he said. "We need to issue papers explaining what we are doing."
He stressed we need to create an open environment. "If we have it out there, then people can track our progress," he said. "We'll issue biannual reports."
As an example, he said, "Our water has improved. We need to tell that to people."
Burke introduced an extensive five-year overhaul plan for the authority compiled by the board, management and staff titled "Strategic Planning: Elements of Vision." John Minor and Lynn Adams of Covington Consultants presented an overview of the plan.
Adams noted in her presentation that a 1998 survey found that 77 percent of customers had experienced a power outage within six months, as compared with 66 percent now. She said it is important for the utility to communicate clearly with customers about outages and repair time estimates. Thomas said a telephone voice system that will almost immediately give customers an estimated time for repairs after an outage occurs is one of his public affairs projects.
Department representatives addressed their specialized areas of the plan, with graphs and slides as illustration. About 25 WAPA management employees attended the meeting, held in the Port Authority conference room on St. Thomas to accommodate the large number.
Board sources indicated the plan is expected to get board approval in June, with management implementation to begin in September. It will probably facilitate some changes in WAPA's Fiscal Year 2002 budget, Burke said.

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