Opinion: After Sweet Meat Comes Sour Sauce (Senators Please Stop Playing Games and Be Responsible With WAPA)

The abandoned St. Croix Legislature Building in March, 2018

If your car needs gas and a new oil pump but gas is expensive, is it “unfair” to put the bill for both on the “back” of you, the car owner? No. If you tried to argue with the mechanics that they should pay for it because you are noble, put-upon and long suffering, you’d just make a clown of yourself. If, to save money, you refused to fix the car, no one would be surprised when the engine seized and you had to take out a big loan to get a new engine. Your friends would roll their eyes at you and snicker behind your back – or to your face – at your foolishness.

Everyone knows the rising cost of oil has led to the rising cost of electricity. Yet speaking of the publicly owned utility in bitter, conspiratorial terms is a V.I. pastime that crosses all demographic lines. It’s bigger than baseball.

Preening about, pretending to be a hero of the people by starving the utility of funds, thus ensuring the people will pay more in the long run, has long been a favorite pastime of senators. Sen. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen perfected this vomitous theatrical art, working for years to starve and cripple the people’s electric utility in the name of the people.

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She’s gone for now, rejected roundly by V.I. voters in her bid for higher office. But a big new crop of senators came into office two months ago. The winds of change were in the air. It looks like the winds have changed back and the forecast is more of the same old swampy smell.

At a recent hearing, WAPA officials said the publicly owned utility is in dire financial condition, slowing progress on making itself more efficient and reliable. WAPA owes its fuel suppliers around $42 million. The suppliers require payment before delivery and have threatened to cut WAPA off for nonpayment. In addition, WAPA is unable to pay its $30 million for an annual infrastructure lease payment to VITOL. It already owes $53 million and the amount is rising rapidly.

WAPA owes other vendors more than $110 million and its pension liability to GERS is $396 million.

Senators were okay with WAPA begging for more federal funds. And yes, it should go begging. Let’s wish it luck with that.

But new senators also showed they are ready to play the same old game of pretending unavoidable expenses are an “injustice;” the same game of pretending WAPA is not owned by the government but maybe by some foreign billionaire with magical pots of money; the same game of pretending that if you shout and feign outrage about something maybe in the past that you pretend would have magically fixed it all, no one will have to actually pay now.

As much as some V.I. elected officials like to pretend otherwise, WAPA is owned by the people of the Virgin Islands. It is not some distant, colonialist multinational corporation. There is a Crucian expression: “with sweet meat come sour sauce.” If you take the easy road, there will be a reckoning. You have to pay the piper. The bills come due. Pretending to give free money to everyone is sweet meat indeed. But if you rob Peter to pay Paul, you can’t then clutch your hair and beat your breast about how unfair it is that Peter is poor.

At a recent hearing, freshman Sen. Alicia Barnes said the budget shortfalls “cannot be addressed on the backs of the ratepayers. It is unacceptable.”

Unacceptable? Senator, you have a college degree. You have headed a government agency before – DPNR. You understand basic arithmetic. “The backs of the ratepayers” is the only place the funding to pay electric bills will come from. Just like the back of the car owner is the only place the money for fixing a car’s oil pump or filling its tank will come from. That’s how paying for services works. But you surely already know that. Which means it’s a show. All that’s missing is a trapeze act.

Freshman Sen. Oakland Benta said “community members feel WAPA is doing them an injustice.” Maybe people do “feel” that way. But words have meanings. Electricity is very expensive. Paying the bill hurts for most Virgin Islanders. The vast majority of us forego air conditioning in the heat of summer and line-dry clothes to avoid disastrously high bills. But “difficult” and “painful” do not mean the same thing as “unjust.” That’s just the word a lazy person uses to justify and feel good about not doing what must be done. Being falsely accused of a crime – that’s unjust. Being denied a fair wage while others less deserving get more – that’s unjust. Stiffing the agency owned by the public so that the same public will have to pay even more later, is not standing up for justice. It’s just irresponsible. We need to take the bitter medicine now or the patient’s condition will get worse and worse.

The Chevrolet Caprice Classic, the most popular car in America in the mid 1970s, got 12 miles per gallon new and less once it was thoroughly broken in. (Wikimedia photo)

The (government owned) hospitals simply ignore their utility bills, as do some government agencies. And for decades, the Legislature and Public Services Commission have often worked to shave a little off what Virgin Islanders have to pay right away each month, at the expense of what they will have to pay in the long run. Starved for funds, the utility has put off maintenance and purchase of more efficient or alternative generating capacity. In recent years some in both bodies point fingers, saying WAPA should have become more efficient years ago, so people shouldn’t have to pay now. It’s like if you nursed a gas-guzzling 1970s Caprice Classic to avoid buying a new car, then yelled at the clouds about the injustice of filling your tank.

There was never a good time for disingenuous grandstanding or phony, empty populism. But times are now especially serious. The territory’s finances are not in order. WAPA’s finances and power plants need help. On the day the power goes out, grandstanding and pointing fingers might win some votes. But being elected to represent the people is not just an extremely well compensated sinecure with a fat office budget and high social status. It is a great honor. One that carries with it great responsibility. Being responsible sometimes means not eating that sweet meat because you know it will lead to sour sauce. Please be responsible.

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