V.I. radio magnate Jonathan Cohen, owner of several St. Croix radio stations including the popular Isle 95, is engaged in a war of words with the V.I. Water and Power Authority over power bills.
Both sides agree money is owed, and Isle 95 has been operating by generator since WAPA cut off its power in September 2015. But they disagree on how much, and Cohen alleges WAPA has billed him the same amount as usual for usage in October, November and December, even though his power was already cut off.
Cohen ran several ads on his station saying he was being over-billed and that his efforts to resolve the dispute were dismissed by WAPA and threatening to cut off radio service on Monday. But he ultimately backed down and now says service will continue uninterrupted.
WAPA responded to the ads with a statement denouncing the ads’ allegations about the bills as "nothing more than an outright lie and a propaganda campaign generated in a bid to win community sympathy for Cohen’s chronic failure to pay for the electrical service his radio stations have utilized."
According to WAPA, Cohen has had a history of delinquent accounts with the authority dating back to 2013, which include returned checks for insufficient funds and failure to maintain numerous payment plans designed to assist his stations in remaining on the air. WAPA alleges Cohen’s debt at times has topped $175,000.
WAPA Executive Director Hugo Hodge Jr. said that while radio stations play an important role, especially in times of emergency, WAPA administers a disconnect and delinquent policy that he said is administered fairly and across the board to all of its customers, residential and commercial.
“I am flabbergasted at the lack of tact taken by Mr. Cohen in airing an outrageous and inflammatory commercial that attempts to blame WAPA for his decision to take his stations off the air. WAPA has bent over backwards for years now to work with Mr. Cohen to address his debt and keep his account up to date, which he has simply failed or refused to do," Hodge said.
He said WAPA is ready to resume providing service if Cohen is ready to pay.
“WAPA has a policy for delinquent and troubled accounts such as Mr. Cohen’s that has to be fairly enforced. The authority simply cannot continue to allow a delinquency to grow without taking steps to collect what is owed…. Such a practice would be unfair to both WAPA and to those customers who pay their bills on time,” Hodge said.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Cohen said he wants to pay his arrears and resume "amicable relations with WAPA," but was angered by what he felt was dismissive treatment of his concerns about whether his bills reflected actual metered usage.
"Everything is normal at the radio station and we are trying to resolve the dispute with WAPA in the next few days," Cohen said.
Before power was turned off Sept. 29, the station had taken measures to conserve power, including turning off transmission at midnight, reducing air conditioner usage and taking several energy efficiency and conservation measures. But despite those measures, which he said reduced usage by almost half, and despite the fact that billing rates were going down as the price of fuel oil dropped, station bills remained the same, month after month, Cohen said.
Then, after the power was cut to the station, and he went over to generators, Cohen said he continued to receive bills for usage that were effectively unchanged.
"We received bills that were about $4,900 or $5,200 per month depending on how long the month was," he said. Those amounts were about the same as he was billed for the same months a year previously, even though his power was cut off, Cohen said.
"There is no question that the radio station owes money to the power authority. The question is what is the amount," Cohen said. "Based on not being on the grid since Sep. 29, it makes me wonder how we can be billed for normal monthly consumption," he said.
Cohen said he had filed a complaint with the V.I. Public Services Commission and had a brief follow up conversation with the PSC on Tuesday.
"The question is, if they had been billing me while I was on a generator, I am not confident I have been getting the actual true (meter) readings going back in time and they don’t seem to want to address that issue," he said. He also said that when he complained, WAPA officials suggested he might have tampered with the meter, which he found offensive.
In 2015, Cohen pleaded guilty to nonpayment of taxes and entered into an agreement to pay back taxes. (See Related Links below)
Asked if the station was facing any financial issues as a result, and if ability to pay was a factor in the WAPA bills, Cohen said, "That has nothing to do with it."
Asked if the station could just continue using generators indefinitely, Cohen said it was possible but difficult and stressful, and he would much prefer to resume normal relations with the utility.
"I just want to be heard, be treated fairly and whatever money we owe I intend on paying it. I just want some questions answered," he said.
Reached Tuesday evening, WAPA spokesperson Jean Greaux Jr. said he could not comment on whether they were billed for several months after the power was cut off, but that most of the past due amounts predated that.
"Many of the issues predated the November and December billing issues he is raising now," Greaux said.
According to Greaux, the station had repeatedly fallen behind in payments and at least one check had been declined for lack of sufficient funds, leading to the decision to cut off service.
"When it comes to tampering, that is why he was disconnected at the pole, not at the breaker. At one point when he was turned off at the breaker, he turned himself back on. When WAPA removed the illegal connection it decided to disconnect him at the pole," Greaux said.
Greaux said he did not want to "diminish his concerns regarding bills after being disconnected."
"If we investigate and find he has valid concerns about billing after disconnection, of course we will address that. But there are more concerns that predate that," Greaux said.
Update: Cohen contacted the Source to dispute that he had connected the station improperly.
"I have never stolen or tampered with a WAPA meter ever before," Cohen said. "But let’s cut to the chase: This has escalated way out of proportion," he said.