A bill to establish a one-call notification center to provide notice of all excavation around underground utilities was sent on for a final Senate vote Tuesday, though the measure provides few details of how, or if, the center will be created.
Sen. Janette Millin Young, the bill’s sponsor, said accidental digging up of power, phone, cable and water lines was extremely costly. Creating a notification center would "save money and increase public safety."
She said WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge had told her "consistently" that we need to enact a law so before someone digs up the earth, utility companies are notified because they know where their cables and lines are located.
When the bill was presented in committee, WAPA and Innovative officials testified in support of creating a notification center, citing those same concerns about the importance of notification.
The original bill [31-0004] directed the Public Works commissioner to establish a notification center within Public Works to receive notification from excavators and to consolidate information on electrical, cable, water and other underground infrastructure.
Public Works Commissioner Gustav James testified April 8 that the department could set up such a system, saying the Office of the Lieutenant Governor had made a lot of progress in mapping in the territory and they could use those digitized maps.
Gustav James said the department could get something set up with an additional $500,000 in funding.
"The investment is small compared to the benefits it would bring," he said at the time.
The original bill had no funding to establish this new entity. The government is in the midst of a major budget crisis.
Tuesday, Young submitted a substitute bill as an amendment. The new bill [Amendment 31-336} states "there is established a single, comprehensive territorial one-call Notification Center" which "is a non-profit corporation and governed by a board of directors that represents and is elected by facility operators" and others.
The legislation does not make clear how the center’s existence will move from a statement that there is a governing board and a notification center to there actually being a board and notification center. The original bill simply directed Public Works to create a center, without funding. The new version declares it to exist. It gives unnamed "facility operators" power to elect officers, but no mechanism for doing so.
Instead of appropriating revenues or setting fees to fund the envisioned center, the bill declares the cost of actually establishing and operating the center"must be shared in an equitable manner for services received, by facility operators." After declaring a philosophical position in favor of equitability, the bill is silent on how it will come to pass. The bill appears to leave the creation, funding and operation of the call center up to unnamed "facility operators," some of which are private companies, like Innovative, and some of which are taxpayer-funded government agencies, like the Waste Management Authority, who would still need government funding in order to contribute equitably as the bill envisions.
Punishments in the bill go from mild to extremely severe. On the mild side, the bill says that on the third offense for not notifying the center before digging within a single year, the penalty is a minimum of $500 per violation and potential loss of business license. But it also says "Any person who knowingly and willfully violates any of the provisions of this chapter is subject to a civil penalty in an amount not to exceed $50,000."
Several senators said they were concerned that the substitute amendment was longer than the original bill and appeared to make major changes. Senate President Neville James said he would support the bill in committee, but would be looking it over carefully before it is considered in legislative session on May 6.
Voting to send the bill on for further consideration were Young, Neville James, Sens. Jean Forde, Novelle Francis, Justin Harrigan and Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly. Sen. Kenneth Gittens voted no.