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Governor Signs WAPA Funding Bill Into Law

Sept. 17, 2008 — A comprehensive funding bill passed by the Senate last month will "provide some improvement to" the V.I. Water and Power Authority's financial picture, but should not be seen as a cure-all for its energy issues, Gov. John deJongh Jr. said Wednesday as he signed the bill into law.
DeJongh submitted the funding bill to the Legislature about three months ago, but senators amended it last month, adding in more money to pay off the government's outstanding debt to WAPA. The original version of the bill earmarked about $13.7 million for WAPA: $8.7 million to cover a portion of the government's unpaid utility bills, and another $5 million to increase the budgets of various government departments and agencies to keep them up to date with their fiscal year 2008 electricity costs.
The amendment bill bumped WAPA's appropriation up to $17.4 million. That will take care of all of the government's debt — pegged at $14.8 million as of Sept. 2 — along with money owed to the authority for its street-lighting program, deJongh said Wednesday. While he signed the bill into law, the governor also cautioned that it does not "cure all of WAPA's ailments."
"I will continue to work with WAPA with the aim of bringing some relief to the pocketbooks of Virgin Islands' residents from the ever-increasing energy costs we all are enduring," deJongh wrote Wednesday in a letter to Senate President Usie R. Richards explaining his decision. "My administration, especially through the V.I. Energy Office, continues to develop measures and initiatives to broaden our energy-production options and implement demand management, all with the dual goals of reducing our reliance on fossil fuel and obtaining cost savings."
Overall, the bill is intended to fund the critical needs of various departments, agencies and organizations, and draws from appropriations approved by the Legislature as far back as 2001. In most cases, only a portion of funding was allotted, leaving the undistributed money available until expended. The authorization needed to use the remaining funds will be shifted from the previous years' appropriations to any new expenditures included in the bill — most of which were also approved by deJongh Wednesday.
The governor used his line-item veto on only two sections Wednesday, one providing a $499,000 contribution to the General Fund from the Health Revolving Fund and another increasing the percentage of property taxes given to WAPA to fund the territory's street-lighting program.
Money deposited into the Health Revolving Fund is, by law, used for specific expenses, such as beefing up the operating budget of the territory's two hospitals. A contribution into the General Fund is "not consistent with the purposes of the Health Revolving Fund," deJongh wrote.
The governor also signed into law a bill that provides about $1.8 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funding to various government departments and local organizations, along with related amendments that reduce:
— an appropriation to the Family Resource Center facility rehabilitation project by $10,000;
— an appropriation to the Enterprise Zone Commission's Paint, Scrape and Rejuvenate program by nearly $35,000; and
— an appropriation to the Agriculture Department to revamp the Bordeaux Farmer's Market by $20,000.
The amendments also added a $45,000 appropriation to Hearts in Service to fund plans for a transitional housing facility and $20,000 to the Missions Training and After School Program.
Other bills signed into law by deJongh Wednesday:
— appropriate $450,000 to the V.I. Police Department, V.I. Fire Services and Emergency Medical Services to repair and use the former Alexander I. Wilson Elementary School on St. Croix as a public-safety substation. While deJongh praised efforts to increase the presence of law enforcement on the big island, he cautioned that the appropriation falls short of the estimated $2.6 million needed to build out, equip and staff the facility;
— increase the monthly gross-receipts tax exemption for businesses pulling in less than $225,000 in annual gross income. The bill seeks to help put small businesses on more solid financial footing, but senators should be cautious in the future when seeking to reduce revenue streams pledged against government bonds without doing a thorough financial analysis, the governor wrote;
— authorize the government to trade six acres of land in Sion Hill for six acres in Estate Rattan to serve as a buffer between the nonprofit The Village/Partners in Recovery alcohol and drug rehabilitation center and a neighboring housing development;
— appropriate $476,006 to pay Central Air for long-past-due bills on air-conditioning repairs at numerous public schools, government agencies, divisions, authorities and governing boards;
— provide incentives for developers interested in revitalizing and cleaning up contaminated properties;
— rezone 13 acres of land in Estate Orange Grove on St. Croix from R-3 (residential-medium density) to B-2 (business-secondary neighborhood) to allow for the construction of an 800-dwelling planned community and town center;
— rezone a 0.9-acre parcel in Estate Mount Welcome on St. Croix from W-2 (waterfront industrial) to B-2. (See "Senate Hears Rezoning Requests for 2 Projects"); and
— honor and confer the V.I. Medal of Honor to Peter Holmberg for his outstanding contribution to the development of sailing as a sport in the community.
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