Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority and Public Services Commission officials opposed two bills that would set minimum criteria of educational requirements for board members of each board.
During Thursday’s Rules and Judiciary Committee, WAPA Board Chairman Anthony Thomas told senators the board doesn’t support the proposed changes because senators are “attempting to fix a problem that does not exist.”
Sen. Kenneth Gittens replied that, “the majority of the Virgin Islands would beg to disagree.”
Senators held the bills in committee for further amendments but only after hurling a few choice words at testifiers.
Sen. Kurt Vialet said whether Thomas believes it or not, there are huge expertise problems on the WAPA board, resulting in “horrible deals.” He cited the utility’s VITOL contract, for which the board originally estimated a project cost of $87 million when the amount was in reality double that.
“The board is the entity that approved the VITOL contract … the board is a direct result as to why we have all the issues we have now. The VITOL contract is a noose around the government’s neck, one of the worst contracts ever negotiated by any entity of the Government of the Virgin Islands,” said Vialet.
He added the estimates were “dead wrong” and suggested that someone on the board with more expertise, the goal of Bill No. 33-0210, would have helped. “Any engineer would have been able to determine that all those decisions were to the detriment of WAPA and we are paying for them right now,” he said.
The present boards “have failed us,” Vialet said. He went further, saying all those who have served on the boards “should never serve on another board again, never.”
Sen. Gittens told testifiers they “have some nerve” to come before the Legislature with the testimony provided when “WAPA is literally in shambles.”
But Thomas maintained his position, even when under heavy fire from senators, that the WAPA board is comprised of qualified individuals.
Thomas said when he joined the board, his expertise added value during an incident when time nearly lapsed on an insurance claim. But Sen. Janelle Sarauw said this only further proved the senators’ point that legislation is needed to establish criteria of expertise.
“That’s the point I am proving. Had you not had that skill set and level of expertise on the board to save the utility company from doing God knows what, then I don’t know what would happen with the insurance proceeds,” Sarauw said.
Sen. Novelle Francis Jr. suggested to WAPA Chief Executive Officer Lawrence Kupfer that the board expertise is needed and “WAPA is the common joke in our community. Everywhere you go there is some smart comment that’s made in regard to WAPA.” He added the Legislature needed to do whatever it takes to regain the public’s confidence.
V.I. Public Services Commission Executive Director Donald Cole reminded senators that the work of his commission requires the review of hundreds of pages of technical, financial and legal information in advance of each meeting. These meetings, he said, go on for six hours or more and the stipend given does not approach the minimum wage.
Cole agreed that board members should have a level of expertise required to be a part of the body, but added currently commissioners are essentially volunteering their time, effort and expertise in critical decisions on the territory’s utilities and infrastructure.
Sens. Sarauw, Francis, Gittens, Alicia Barnes, Myron Jackson, Steven Payne Sr. and Javan James all voted to hold the bills in committee.
Three additional bills were on the agenda but were not discussed.