June 14, 2007 — At a hearing Thursday in Frederiksted, the Senate Committee on Rules and Judiciary approved Brenda B. Benjamin and John F. Lewis for positions on the Water and Power Authority and the Economic Development Authority governing boards, respectively.
Benjamin, nominee to the WAPA Board, is a St. Croix native. A small business entrepreneur, she owns Essentric Boutique on St. Croix and Kid Stride and Casi Distributors on St. Thomas. Benjamin said she would push WAPA to improve customer service.
In todays business world, it is necessary to attain and maintain high levels of customer service to be effective, she said. We need to understand that when a customer has a problem with WAPA, the initial point of contact is not a manager or a supervisor. It is the customer-service representative.
Benjamin focused on the territorys use of oil-burning generators as a prime cause of high electric bills.
The cost of turning fuel into electricity is one reason we need to continue on the path of alternative- and renewable-energy sources, Benjamin said. We also need to educate the public about the LEAC (levelized energy adjustment charge) — what it is, and why it is so high. Increased public knowledge of the connection between the LEAC and the price of oil might lead to greater energy conservation, she said.
Should she get confirmed, Benjamin said finding a new executive director for WAPA will be a high priority. The prior director, Alberto Bruno-Vega, retired at the beginning of this month. WAPA Chief Financial Officer Nellon Bowry is acting as interim director.
I feel comfortable supporting your nomination, said Senate President Usie Richards. But it is my concern that we want pit bulls on the board who will make a difference. … We the consumers are the ones paying for WAPAs poor maintenance, poor planning and line losses. I want you to help turn that around.
WAPA did say they have a lot of maintenance issues to be dealt with, and I am hoping to address that, because it is a concern, senator, Benjamin replied.
Sen. Carlton Dowe, the committee chairman, asked Benjamin to look into the advantages of an interconnecting underwater cable between St. Thomas and St. Croix.
As long as we have to pay for fuel, keeping backup system after backup system running — unless we do something drastic, we will save only nickels and cents, Dowe said. If we are able to do this interconnection between St. Croix and St. Thomas, it means at least two units could be down on either island at the same time. A cable connection between the islands would save fuel spent on extra generating capacity and make the entire system more stable.
John F. Lewis, nominee to the EDA Board, has been a St. Croix resident for the past 35 years except for a few years he spent in Puerto Rico, from 1988 to 1992. He owns Lewis Consulting, a company that trains physicians and health-care providers in regulatory compliance. He used to own Computer Logistics in Gallows Bay and has worked in the Department of Health.
Lewis offered some specific ideas on how to increase investment in the territory, in line with the EDAs mission.
We need to promote all of the advantages inherent in our status as a U.S. territory, as opposed to the disadvantages of potential investors going to foreign destinations, he said. We need to be able to attract more foreign corporations to our shores, corporations which would specialize, for example, in small manufacturing companies, billing and collection companies for hospitals, service support via email or telephone, IT (information technology) related businesses, assembly plants for DME (durable medical equipment) companies and so on.
Could you elaborate on the economic issues affecting St. Croix? Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft asked.
In my opinion, the idea (that) investors are waiting for us to open our doors is not a reality, Lewis replied. Ive brought investors in from Europe, the U.S. and Japan. One came off the plane, went to our house for dinner and left the next morning because of what he saw here in that half a day.
What exactly was the reason they left the next day? Wesselhoft asked.
Bringing an investor to the island with the cleanliness as it is, is a deterrent, Lewis said. If you live on an island that is not clean, how do you expect me, as an investor, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to attract tourists to the island who will see the same filth I see? When you see the grass cut by Public Works, what do you see? Beer bottles and trash everywhere.
Lewis cited rundown property, too.
Go into Christiansted, you see dilapidated buildings, Lewis said. We all know who owns these buildings. Times Square has been fixed up — with federal funds. But the buildings just adjacent are dilapidated.
Sen. Alvin Williams took issue with the idea that cleanliness was the primary deterrent.
What I hear again and again from my constituents is bureaucratic red tape is the biggest deterrent, he said.
Lewis pledged to make every EDA meeting, which would help to prevent past problems the authority has had coming up with a quorum to allow voting. Because his wife was involved with the sale of the Robin Bay property on St. Croix, Lewis said he would recuse himself from any decision regarding that property.
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