Sept. 30, 2002 – After more than nine months of unremitting efforts, the Water and Power Authority finally received a funding source on Monday for the territory's street lighting, albeit only for the next 90 days.
WAPA petitioned the Public Services Commission in July for a surcharge of about $1.50 a month on residential customers' bills to fund the lighting program. The PSC granted the surcharge Monday. And starting on Tuesday, residential customers will be billed approximately that amount to fund the lighting program.
If the PSC were to fail to act by Oct. 1, hearing examiner Fred Watts said at a Sept. 9 hearing, the surcharge would automatically go into effect under a law giving the commission 30 days to act on a utility's request or see it take effect.
Since responsibility for the territory's street lighting was transferred from the Public Works Department to WAPA last December, funding for the work has been a thorn in the utility's hide.
When WAPA's executive director at the time, Joseph Thomas, proposed a surcharge to the Legislature early this year to fund the lighting program, the senators wouldn't hear of the idea of raising residents' electric bills, but they did appropriate $2.8 million to fund the program. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull then vetoed the appropriation, but the Senate overrode the veto. WAPA, however, says it has yet to see a dime of that money.
Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, said at a Senate Finance Committee meeting recently that, the Senate's appropriation notwithstanding, there is no money available for street lighting.
The surcharge issue was not easily resolved Monday, and it did not come without strings. As the hearing progressed, discussion became more and more complex, sometimes dwindling down to a matter of semantics, as in what "rural," "urban" and "residential" mean as regards street lighting.
Flap over federal funding
A bone of contention is the question of who is responsible for lighting Veterans Drive on St. Thomas and Melvin Evans Highway on St. Croix. PSC members decried the St. Croix highway as "the darkest in the territory." Veterans Drive has had a number of pedestrian accidents, including fatalities.
Glenn Rothgeb, WAPA acting executive director, reiterated what he had said at earlier: Lighting for both roadways is federally funded, and WAPA doesn't receive those funds; the Public Works Department does, and responsibility for the federally funded lights falls to Public Works.
Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood vehemently disagreed on Monday. He didn't attend the July meeting, but had told Maynard on the telephone that Public Works wasn't responsible for the highway lights.
Callwood, who was absent at the previous hearing, said on Monday that Public Works does receive federal highway funding for the highway lighting, but it's only for installation of the lights, not for their maintenance. He said WAPA is responsible for providing the energy for the highway lighting, and that the authority has always billed PWD for that lighting.
He passed to the commission members a sheaf of WAPA bills which he said do not differentiate which lights are being billed for. He again said Public Works receives a federal grant for installation of the lights, but not for maintenance. He added that Public Works has a stockpile of parts for the highway lights, which it uses freely.
No limit now to liability
Another crucial issue with WAPA is its lack of liability coverage for maintaining the federal lighting. "We can't take on that responsibility," WAPA legal counsel Kathy Smith said, and WAPA board chair Carol Burke backed her. "PWD had limited liability on maintaining the lights," Burke said. "WAPA doesn't. WAPA will be bankrupt. We cannot proceed without limited liability."
Just when it appeared a resolution might be on the horizon, Crucian board member Luther Renee raised a point on everybody's mind. "I would be hard pressed to pay $1.50 and still drive in total darkness," he said, in reference to the Melvin Evans Highway.
After much discussion in and out of the meeting room, a compromise was reached. The board voted unanimously to grant the WAPA surcharge for 90 days, conditional on Public Works repairing and maintaining the highway lights and WAPA reimbursing Public Works for expenses during the period, including the electricity bills.
Still to be resolved is the legality of who pays for the highway lighting. Maynard suggested the matter could wind up in the Legislature, and that it is something the commission and its new WAPA hearing examiner, George S. Eltman, would have to study. Maynard said, "We will probably have to go to the Senate for light and clarity."
The PSC recently brought in a new consultant on the current WAPA rate investigation. It hired Georgetown Consulting while another firm, AUS Consultants, was still working on the investigation.
By law, the regulated utilities must pay for their PSC rate investigation costs. WAPA officials vehemently objected to the change in consultants. Rothgeb said WAPA has already spent more than $400,000 on the investigation AUS has been conducting for the last 14 months. And he said Monday that he has discovered another $100,000 that WAPA is being billed for.
Burke, Smith and Rothgeb complained strongly about the extra costs they said WAPA will now incur with the new consultants. Maynard said he didn't think there would be repetition, but Smith said Georgetown would have to go over AUS's interrogatories and other documents, which WAPA would have to pay for by the hour. Burke and Rothgeb said the process would have to involve repetition. Maynard said the commission would study the issue.
Commission member Alric Simmonds, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's deputy chief of staff, shed light on a mystery which arose recently, when he said on Monday, "I thought we voted at the last meeting to put a temporary surcharge in place."
Turnbull had said in his letter to Liburd concerning the Fiscal Year 2003 budget legislation that he had approved a $500,000 Omnibus appropriation to WAPA for the lighting. He wrote: "Taken with the surcharge recently approved by the Public Services Commission, this subsidy will help ensure that WAPA has sufficient funds and that more of our neighborhoods will be lighted in the near future."
Attending the meeting were commission members Jerris Browne, Valencio Jackson, Maynard, Renee, Simmonds and Alecia Wells. Commission member Verne David was absent.
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