May 28, 2002 – The Water and Power Authority is losing $700,000 a month maintaining the territory's street lights while awaiting funding for the work.
Legislation enacted last year transferred responsibility for the lighting to WAPA from the Public Works Department. The Legislature appropriated $2.8 million to WAPA to cover start-up costs for the work. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull vetoed the appropriation, but the Senate overrode his veto earlier this year.
However, Carol Burke, WAPA board chair, says the utility has yet to receive "one dime" for the street lighting, while it's costing the authority $700,000 a month to maintain emergency repair service. "We are caught between the legislative and administrative branches of government. As a result of that legislation, we have lost money," she said.
This was the fear expressed months ago by Joseph Thomas, then WAPA executive director, when he opposed depending on the government for the funding. He pushed for a $1.80 monthly surcharge on residential electric bills to ensure a dependable source of funding for the street-lighting program, but the senators wouldn't hear of that.
At its May 23 meeting, the board voted unanimously to have its acting executive director, Glenn Rothgeb, petition the Public Services Commission for a rate surcharge to fund the lighting program. Rothgeb said Tuesday he would be doing that "shortly."
Meanwhile, another possible solution to the problem is before the Legislature. In his proposed Infrastructure Maintenance Act of 2001, Sen. Emmett Hansen II is proposing to fund the street lighting through 5 percent of property taxes. His bill gets a hearing before the Rules Committee on Thursday.
"They're going exactly in the wrong direction," Hansen said of the WAPA board Tuesday, referring to its decision to petition the PSC for a customer surcharge. "The last thing they should do is to impose another charge on the consumer," he said, "especially right now in the wake of the asbestos surcharge they are collecting."
In his proposal, Hansen said, he has "closed the loophole" of indefinite government payments. "We have put the funds in a lockbox," he said, so the money won't get tied up between the Finance Department and the Office of Management and Budget — the quagmire that often seems to swallow government appropriations.
"At the beginning of each fiscal year, the funds would be sent directly to WAPA," Hansen explained. "They would get the money in a lump sum, and they could tie that money up by getting a municipal or utilities loan to do everything they need." He added, "Once the money is obligated in that manner, that money cannot be touched — because it would be breaking a covenant of the agreement. Even if a subsequent Legislature wanted to change it, they would be unable to break that contract."
Burke expressed reservations about Hansen's plan. "Property taxes fluctuate," she said. "We don't know if that would be enough from year to year to maintain the business. It's important the senators understand we need a reliable funding source."
Hansen said nobody from WAPA has contacted him about his bill, although both Burke and Rothgeb said the authority would have representatives at Thursday's Rules meeting, which is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. on St. Thomas.

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