Sept 13, 2002 – The fate of the territory's street lighting still lies in limbo, as the Public Services Commission decided on Thursday to postpone a decision on the Water and Power Authority's request to add a surcharge of about $1.50 to residential customers' bills to pay for the lighting program.
Since responsibility for the territory's street lighting was transferred from the Public Works Department to WAPA last December, funding for the work has remained unresolved.
When former WAPA executive director Joseph Thomas proposed a surcharge to the Legislature early this year to fund the lighting program, the senators wouldn't hear of the idea of raising residents' electric bills, but they did appropriate $2.8 million to fund the program. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull vetoed the appropriation, but the Senate overrode the veto.
However, WAPA has yet to see a dime of that money, Glenn Rothgeb, WAPA acting executive director, said once again on Thursday, as he has at numerous public meetings before. This was an eventuality Thomas had predicted based on the government's debt owed WAPA for unpaid utility bills.
Rothgeb described the funding issue as a "change of address," meaning the bill goes to the customer instead of Public Works.
Should any of the appropriated government funding become a reality, WAPA would issue a credit on customers' bills, Robert Vodzack, WAPA chief financial officer, told the PSC. Vodzack said WAPA has had "no cash flow since January to maintain the street lights."
The clock is ticking on WAPA's request. If the PSC fails to act on it before Oct. 1, hearing examiner Fred Watts said, the surcharge will automatically go into effect under a V.I. law that gives the PSC 30 days to act on a utility's request. The commission decided to meet again before Oct. 1 to act on the matter.
But that was hardly the end of it.
Lighting on Veterans Drive on St. Thomas — which has seen a number of pedestrian accidents, including fatalities — and on Melvin Evans Highway on St. Croix is inadequate, Desmond Maynard, PSC chairman, said. "People are getting killed on the waterfront — the public suffers," he said.
The WAPA officials said lighting for both roadways is federally funded and that WAPA doesn't receive those funds. Rothgeb said it's easy to see what's what: "The wooden poles are WAPA's and the metal poles are the federal government's." He said responsibility for the federally funded lights falls to Public Works, which receives federal funding for that purpose.
Carole Burke, WAPA board chair, said the utility "is forbidden to provide free electricity, and that's the problem we are facing today." Maynard said the public doesn't see the distinction between lights that are federally funded and those that are not; what they see is that those areas aren't adequately lighted.
After much back and forth regarding who has responsibility for the waterfront and Evans Highway lighting, Maynard left the room and called apparently telephoned Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood. "He says the federal lights are WAPA's responsibility," Maynard said upon returning to the meeting.
Sen. Emmett Hansen II, a non-voting commission member, shook his head. "You can't put up street lights with promises," he said. "If the money had been appropriated, we could avoid all this." Hansen was referring to his own Infrastructure Act of 2001, which would have funded the street lighting with a dedicated portion of property taxes. The measure was vetoed by the governor, and his colleagues did not support an override, even though they had almost unanimously approved the bill itself.
Maynard said the commission members needed more time for review of the surcharge. He noted that Georgetown Consulting Group, recently named to replace AUS Consultants as the entity investigating WAPA rates, is still reviewing the matter.
Rothgeb said after the meeting that WAPA has already spent more than $216,000 on the investigation AUS has been conducting for the last 14 months. He said the PSC brought in Georgetown within the past six weeks while AUS was still working on the investigation. V.I. law requires regulated utilities to pay for the PSC's rate investigation costs. He said the PSC has already assessed WAPA $216,000, but the cost so far is probably "closer to $400,000" including WAPA's own expenses.
All commission members attended the meeting: Jerris Browne, Verne David, Valencio Jackson, Maynard, Luther Renee, Alric Simmonds and Alecia Wells, who are voting members; and Sens. Donald "Ducks" Cole and Hansen, who are non-voting members.
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