Joseph Thomas, WAPA executive director, has maintained the authority must have a reliable source of revenue in order to take on the street lighting program and says it could be provided by a $1.80 monthly surcharge on customers' electric bills. In a November Finance Committee hearing, Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, committee chair, struck a provision for such funding from the bill, substituting an annual government appropriation to pay for the program.
Thomas opposes relying on government appropriations, citing his problems in his six-month tenure with WAPA in collecting overdue government utility bills. At the moment those bills total some $15.7 million, he said.
With reliable funding, he said, WAPA will have the territory's 8,000 street lights working within 18 months. If forced to rely on government appropriations, he said, WAPA will do the street lighting on a contract basis with leased vehicles. If government funding should fail, he would furlough the employees and park the vehicles without dipping into WAPA's operating funds.
In the Government Operations Committee meeting Wednesday morning, Sen. Emmett Hansen II, committee chair, offered an alternate funding idea, submitting legislation to fund the street lighting program through property taxes, which now go entirely into the General Fund.
His bill, titled The Infrastructure Maintenance Act of 2001, provides for 5 percent of property taxes each fiscal quarter to be paid into three funds — a street light fund, a road fund and a potable water fund — for each of the territory's four islands, including Water Island. At the end of each quarter, the Finance commissioner would distribute the funds. The bill also includes a clause limiting WAPA's liability to $25,000, which was something else Thomas wanted.
Thomas said while he would still prefer a surcharge on bills, he would support the property-tax approach with the following caveat: "If the street/area light monies are not available in adequate amounts or in a timely fashion in any period, the authority is free to recover via rate relief."
The bill states: "In the event adequate funds are not made available to the authority at the end of each fiscal quarter, the authority shall have the right to establish a monthly fee for service, subject to regulation by the Public Services Commission."
Emmett Hansen said, "The only sticking point is that we are not confident that the money will move from the executive branch to WAPA in a timely manner."
Wednesday evening, at the Rules Committee meeting, Alicia Hansen said Thomas "needs to have more confidence in the V.I. government."
Earlier in the day, Thomas had said that "the government still owes WAPA in excess of $10 million in delinquent water and electric bills, $3.2 million in [Federal Emergency Management Agency] funds, and $2.5 million in DPW street lighting bills."
The Rules Committee passed Alicia Hansen's bill Wednesday night after reference to "recreational" lighting was removed from the language. Joseph has said that recreational and highway lighting will be separate programs, which he hopes to institute in three to five years. Each of those areas requires different skills and equipment from those needed for street lighting, which WAPA already maintains for the Public Works Department, he said.
The Government Operations Committee will study the property tax proposal further.
In the Rules Committee, the bill transferring the street lighting responsibility from DPW to WAPA passed 5-1 with Sens. Donald "Ducks" Cole, Emmett Hansen, Almando "Rocky" Liburd, Norma Pickard-Samuel and Celestino A. White Sr. in favor and committee chair Carlton Dowe against; Sen. Adelbert Bryan was absent.
Dowe, Cole and White vociferously objected to the bill's designated source of funding for the start-up costs of the street-lighting program. Those costs are pegged at $2.78 million, with $780,000 to come from the Anti-Litter and Beautification Fund and $2 million from the Land Bank Fund.
On Saturday, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull vetoed legislation appropriating $700,000 from the Land Bank Fund to the V.I. Housing Authority for a cistern and slab program and an in-house mortgage program and another $520,000 from the fund to VIHA for infrastructure costs for the Town House Development at Estate Fortuna.
"Is there money in the fund, or isn't there?" Cole asked Alicia Hansen, who assured him that there is. White said he couldn't understand the governor's reasoning and vowed to get to the bottom of "that kitchen cabinet that is influencing him."
The bill as passed simply transfers the lighting responsibility and provides start-up funding. It makes no reference to funding the lighting program on an ongoing basis.