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WAPA Officials Frustrated by Slow Pace of Government Payments

Oct. 26, 2006 — Several members of the Water and Power Authority's governing board got hot under the collar Thursday night at their monthly meeting when they were informed of the sluggish pace at which the V.I. government continues to pay its electric and water bills.
WAPA Chief Financial Officer Nellon Bowry reported that the utility had received $1 million from Schneider Regional Medical Center on St. Thomas and $500,000 from Juan F. Luis Hospital (JFLH) on St. Croix. However, the government is still about $10 million in arrears to WAPA, including $3 million in streetlight operation costs.
Board Chairman Mickey Lynch was not happy about the situation, especially the low payment from Luis Hospital. When Gov. Charles Turnbull signed the supplemental budget into law last month, $4.5 million had been appropriated by the Legislature to pay WAPA the entire balance owed by the hospital.
Lynch wanted to know why the hospital had only paid $500,000.
Bowry said that, according to the hospital's chief financial officer, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was only releasing the money on a quarterly basis.
Regarding payment for streetlights, Bowry said that OMB and Juel Molloy, special assistant to the governor, had told him they were reluctant to make back payments on the streetlights. According to Molloy, the government did not have enough money in the Streetlight Fund to pay the back bills, but would be able to pay some of the current bill in January.
"Cut the lights then," said Lynch. "They are playing games. They told us the money would be forwarded to us."
Although WAPA previously funded streetlight maintenance via a customer surcharge, the authority last year returned the funding responsibility to the government, which set up the Streetlight Fund to cover operating costs.
Bowry said Molloy had told him the fund did not have enough money to pay off the old $3 million electric bill. "We cant continue to run the lights without compensation," Bowry told the board. "We have gone 13 months without compensation for the street light bills."
Board member Roy Anduze said that several board members had a meeting with the governor on Sept. 1 to try and resolve the issue of the unpaid utility bills.
"The governor was very gracious at the meeting," said Anduze. "They listened attentively and seemed to be sensitive to the desperate financial straits at WAPA."
Anduze said the governor told the board members he would reprogram funds to make substantial payments on the bills.
The utility is operating in the red currently due to the high oil prices. WAPA uses fuel oil to generate electricity and has fallen behind on its fuel bills.
"This keeps us from making major improvements to our infrastructure," said Anduze.
Even with the payments from Schneider and Luis hospitals, the utility's financial woes continue.
"Some of the [government] agencies havent read the same message we gave to the governor," said Anduze.
"We arent talking about abstractions here. Were talking about being able to turn on the lights," continued Anduze. "The delinquencies of these agencies is putting us on our knees."
He said that currently, WAPA can barely keep up the major reserves, and in case of a generator failure, there is no backup. "This is critical to the community. If and when we fail, the entire community will fail," said Anduze.
Lynch said he would write to the governor and tell them what is owed. "We were supposed to get $4 million," he said.
Bowry said he would talk to Molloy again, explain the situation, and "see if she can shake it loose."
In other business matters, the board:
— agreed to pay $600,000 for a 12-month contract to Best Construction for emergency and supplemental maintenance services at the Harley and Richmond power plants on St. Thomas and St. Croix;
— voted unanimously on a 3-year, $5.3 million contract to Ambient Technologies for maintenance work on the desalinization plants;
— agreed to pay $800,000 to Tesla Electric and Armature Inc. for maintenance on generator 14 in St. Croix;
— voted to pay Flemming Transportation to ship generator 17 from St. Croix to France for repair work;
— agreed to a $310,000 contract to Temper Tanks Inc. to rehabilitate the 2 million-gallon water storage tank at Mon Bijou on St. Croix;
— voted to use $3.6 million to renovate water storage tanks at Donoe on St. Thomas and at Cruz Bay on St. John. The board also agreed to reprogram an $800,000 federal grant so that a water storage tank on St. Croix could be rehabilitated at a later date.
— agreed to a three-year, $2.2 million contract to Asplundh tree trimming to trim the trees around electric lines;
— extend its contract with the bond counsel firm, Hawkins, Delafield and Wood, to two years and increase the funding to $362,000;
— voted to change WAPAs contract guidelines to increase the performance bond limit from $75,000 to $500,000, so that local and smaller contracting companies could afford to bid on WAPA construction projects; and
— agreed to pay the Public Services Commission $727,029 in docket fees.
Regarding the payment to the PSC, Anduze commented, "This is in order, considering the future legal fees of the PSC."
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