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WAPA: SERVICE GETS CUT IN 15 DAYS IF BILLS NOT PAID

June 29, 2001 — Pay up or be shut off: That’s essentially the message commissioners of government departments will be reading in letters being sent Friday by the Water and Power Authority as it seeks to collect the $25 million owed by the central government.
Departments will have 15 days to pay what they owe for electricity and/or water, or service will be shut off, Joseph Thomas, WAPA executive director, told the utility’s board members on Thursday.
"We’re at a point now where we have to move to a next step," Thomas said of collecting the government bills that have been building up for five years. He said the $25 million debt carried on the WAPA books affects everything from its bond rating to audits.
"Virtually every deal we have, this issue comes up. It’s a significant item," Thomas, who became the utility's top official seven weeks ago, said.
Despite the hardships caused by two major hurricanes over the last 12 years, Thomas said, allowing the government to be in arrears is unfair to the household accounts that are shut off after 30 days of non-payment. WAPA records show that executive branch utility bills come to about $1.5 million per month.
WAPA board members gave Thomas the green light at their last meeting to begin looking into ways of collecting on the government debt. However, the two board members who are department heads themselves — Andrew Rutnik and Ira Hobson, commissioners of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and of Housing, Parks and Recreation, respectively — expressed reservations about the hardball tactics.
Most public housing tenants receive full or partially subsidies on their water bills, causing the his department to be the biggest WAPA debtor, Hobson said. Acknowledging the debt, Hobson said, "I’m concerned at looking ahead and finding my department completely without electricity, without recourse."
Rutnik said any WAPA shut-off of service "should be selective and it should be surgical." Turning off the government’s water and power could cause a "severe problem," he said. "It would create a great deal of chaos in the community."
Despite those concerns, board member Alphonso Franklin noted that Thomas was given the go-ahead last month to collect the government debt.
"I don’t think we should find ways to back out of this," Franklin said. "We’ve been doing this for the last year."
Thomas said he hoped to have the collection letters out Friday and to meet with Gov. Charles W. Turnbull within two weeks. If no pressure is brought to bear on the government, it is likely no money will be forthcoming, he said.
"We ought to be able to think this thing through," he said. "I can assure you we will spell out our plan before we do anything."
According to WAPA records, the government water bills over the last five years have accounted for the largest part of its unpaid balance. The amount owed for water was $3.4 million in fiscal year 1995 and about $15 million by FY 1999.
WAPA’s electrical system was owed $2.6 million in FY 1995 and $13.8 million by FY 1999.

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