Sept. 19, 2002 – The ongoing saga of when and how funding will be forthcoming for the territory's street lighting was in the limelight again Wednesday at a meeting of the Senate Government Operations Committee, which once again approved Sen. Emmett Hansen's Infrastructure Maintenance Act of 2001, updating its name to the Act of 2002.
The saga took a curious twist early in the day when Gov. Charles W. Turnbull sent the Fiscal Year 2003 budget and Omnibus bills with his approvals and vetoes to Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd.
Turnbull said in his letter of transmittal to Liburd that he had approved a $500,000 Omnibus appropriation to the Water and Power Authority. He then wrote: "Taken with the surcharge recently approved by the Public Services Commission, this subsidy will help ensure that WAPA has sufficient funds and that more of our neighborhoods will be lighted in the near future."
The PSC has not acted on WAPA's petition for a monthly surcharge of about $1.50 on residential customers' bills as a means of raising revenues to pay for the lighting. The petition is scheduled to be heard at a Sept. 30 commission meeting.
Hansen, the Government Operations chair, called Wednesday's meeting to get a status report from WAPA on possible sources of funding for the street lighting. The matter has been a thorn in the utility's side since legislation enacted last year transferred responsibility for the territory's street and area lighting to WAPA from the Public Works Department.
The administration has steadfastly refused to allocate the money the Legislature appropriated earlier this year for the lighting program.
Robert J. Vodzack, WAPA chief financial officer, told the committee on Wednesday: "No funds have been received by the authority from the $4.7 million appropriation in Act 6486, let alone funding to improve and expand the public street lighting system." He added that the authority has been billing Public Works for all street lighting since the bill was passed, but "PWD has not paid for this service."
Vodzack said the authority is "specifically prohibited from knowingly providing 'free service' under its bond resolution, a contractual agreement between the purchasers of the authority's long-term indebtedness and the authority."
If the PSC denies WAPA the surcharge, he said, it will be requiring WAPA to provide "free service." And that, as a violation of WAPA's bond covenant, could "taint" WAPA's reputation in the bond community and impair the authority's ability to issue future bonds, he said.
The PSC chair, Desmond Maynard, had been invited to testify at Wednesday's hearing, but Hansen said Maynard, a lawyer, could not be present because he had to appear in court.
Hansen's infrastructure bill provides for 5 percent of property taxes and a portion of gasoline taxes to be paid into three separate funds — a street light fund, a road fund and a potable water fund — that would be established for each of the four main islands — St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and Water Island. The taxes collected on a particular island would go into the funds for that same island. At the end of each fiscal quarter, the Finance commissioner would distribute the funds.
After months of meetings, Hansen succeeded in June in getting his "2001" bill through the Senate and to Government House, only to have Turnbull veto it. After that, his colleagues, who had almost unanimously voted for the measure, would not support an override of the veto.
Turnbull said at the time of his veto that the measure would remove "critically needed funds from the General Fund." And, he said, "It is within the purview of WAPA to raise its own revenues to carry out its duties and responsibilities."
According to Hansen, his legislation now "will be fast-tracked to Rules, and then straight to the floor. There is absolutely nothing to take its place. There is nothing allocated from the government."
Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said at a Senate Finance Committee meeting recently that, the Senate's appropriation notwithstanding, there is no money available for street lighting.
Sen. David Jones asked what made Hansen think the governor would approve the infrastructure legislation this time around, terming the effort a "futile exercise." Hansen said he saw no choice but to try again, since there is no other funding for lighting.
He said he has tried for more than a year to get a response from Government House about the bill. He said earlier this year that he had made "more than 100 phone calls" and written many letters.
"I've made public my pleas," Hansen said on Wednesday. "What am I supposed to do? Storm the gates and leap across the drawbridge and deliver it on parchment paper on bended knee?" He added of his bill, "It is not the holy grail, but it will work."
Should Hansen's legislation pass without delay and become law, Vodzack said, WAPA would withdraw its surcharge petition before the PSC.
Sen. Adelbert Bryan spoke vehemently against the surcharge idea, calling it "disgusting and ridiculous." He said putting payment for the lighting on the backs of residential customers would "create a bunch of slaves and dependents."
However, Bryan suggested an alternative funding source which he said would not create "political parasites." Speaking to Vodzack, he asked how much money WAPA takes in from the Housing Authority each month. As a ballpark figure, Vodzack said, about $600,000 for water and $50,000 for electricity.
Bryan said those amounts times 12, which would be $7.8 million, would "certainly pay for street lighting." He said the Housing Authority should pro-rate the service. He offered this analogy: "I give you milk and cookies every day for five years; and one day I don't, you will be upset, because you think you are entitled to that." His point: The families in housing communities "should pay something."
Bryan said that goes for all housing developments, private as well as public. He asked Vodzack if any developments in the States depend on their governments to pay for their water, to which Vodzack just looked askance, agreeing with Bryan's point.
Hansen's bill passed on a 4-2 vote with Jones abstaining. Voting for it were Sens. Carlton Dowe, Donald "Ducks" Cole, Hansen and Norma Pickard-Samuel. Voting against were Sens. Bryan and Roosevelt David.
Another bill Hansen has submitted — to use the territory's excess receipts from the Fiscal Year 2002 rum excise taxes for installation, repair and maintenance of St. Croix's sewage system and for other infrastructure repairs on the island — was held in committee for further study.
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