Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. vetoed legislation this week that would have created an unfunded mandate cutting payment to the V.I. Water and Power Authority for services used by customers for billings of more than 35 days. The bill was approved without committee hearings or testimony during a March 27 legislative session. It is a reaction to public opposition to a recent unpopular move by WAPA to try to bring billing up to date with a one-time 60-day billing cycle.
WAPA fell behind on manual meter readings after the 2017 storms damaged their automated metering systems. No one is required to pay two months at once. The billing is for actual power usage. It’s a 60-day bill, but customers could arrange to pay at least half by the due date and the remainder over the next three monthly bills, thus paying it over four months.
Because WAPA is owned by the U.S. Virgin Islands and the fuel and other expenses of WAPA are paid entirely by its local customers and no other source, banning billing does not make the expense vanish but just starves the utility for funds, creating new expenses ultimately paid by the same customers.
To learn more about how this dynamic has played out repeatedly in the USVI, see the Source series on the history of WAPA and WAPA finances.
In a letter to the Legislature, Bryan said he vetoed the bill because there is already a “reasonable period of three months” limiting back billing under ACT 7373, which the Legislature passed in 2012.
Bryan said all businesses need to have ample amount of time to correct errors, both in favor and against customers, and that most errors often are not identified until two billing cycles have passed.
“To limit WAPA, or any business for that matter, to only one billing cycle or thirty days to correct an error could be crippling,” Bryan wrote in the transmittal letter to the Legislature.
Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. (D-STX) and Sen. Myron Jackson (D-STT) both issued statements decrying the veto.
“Our ratepayers have been harmed by WAPA’s lack of accountability. Ratepayers cannot be asked to bear the burden of WAPA’s inconsistent billing practices, which allows the Authority to issue 60-day bills and to reach back three months to correct their own billing errors,” Francis wrote.
“Our community deserves greater accountability from WAPA, and [this bill] is one way to move the utility towards better billing and financial practices,” Francis added.
He went on to say the veto “shows a blatant disregard for the people of this territory, who make many sacrifices to pay their WAPA bills and keep the lights on.”
In a similar, if gentler vein, Jackson wrote that he felt it “is unfortunate that at a time when the people of the Virgin Islands are experiencing a pandemic and economic hardship, they will be faced with having to choose between getting their basic needs met for their families or paying their newly adjusted WAPA bill.”
This bill is the first major new unfunded mandate since the Legislature approved a series of them in 2016.
The Legislature has recently approved some smaller unfunded mandates, including one mandating spending on an existing data system and one mandating the court system prepare a variety of emergency plans without funding to do so. Both of those mandates were also vetoed by Bryan.