“If you can pay your bills, pay them,” is the message coming from Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. and Sen. Alicia Barnes. However, they also called for protection against drastic actions, like being evicted from your home or having your power disconnected.
Barnes on Monday asked the governing board of the V.I. Water and Power Authority to suspend its policy of disconnections to all customers. She also asked that any customer, who was disconnected since the state of emergency was declared on March 13, be reconnected immediately.
She told the Source Wednesday that this was not just an economic issue but one that concerns the safety of the community. She said the Centers for Disease Control suggests during the emergency that people wash their hands as often as they can. If a person’s water has been shut off that could become a problem.
It would also be a problem if a person does not have a house to sleep in. This is one of the reasons Bryan on Monday, as part of an executive order, suspended the section of the V.I. Code allowing a landlord to evict a tenant for nonpayment.
At the press conference announcing his executive order, Bryan was asked how WAPA’s recent action to bill residents for two months in March to catch up its billing cycle would fit into emergency policy.
Bryan said WAPA was allowing a resident to pay half of the bill this month and then pay off the remaining balance in an installment plan over the next three months, thus spreading it across four payments. However, he added if you can pay it now, do so.
“We don’t want residents to wait four months and it will still be there,” he said.
He said WAPA needs the money to buy fuel.
A WAPA news release said the 60-day bill was issued to allow the Authority to capture lost billing days and cycles.
WAPA Chief Financial Officer Debra Gottlieb explained, “These bills are issued for services that have long been provided but unbilled. The Authority must normalize its billing functions and collect approximately $23 million in unbilled revenue. This is a step in that direction.”
Barnes told the Source she had discussed her proposal to stop disconnections during the pandemic with WAPA’s Executive Director Lawrence Kupfer. She said Kupfer told her the proposal was under consideration.
The WAPA board is scheduled to meet Thursday. Barnes says she hopes the board will at that time adopt a non-disconnect policy.
“We are in uncharted waters,” Barnes said.
She said the government and WAPA had to find ways to balance their needs with the predicament of the residents.
When asked about Bryan’s effort to stop evictions during the emergency, she said, “That is absolutely a good idea, good policy.”
WAPA’s press release on March 17 said, “If a customer does not make the first half payment of the March bill by the due date, the account is subject to disconnection. Payment of the delinquent amount and a reconnection fee will be required for service to be reestablished.”
Since Monday, WAPA has offered only limited service at customer service offices territorywide. The Authority is encouraging online and telephonic business transactions.
Barnes said what she is advocating has support on the national level. She said on Friday, 16 U.S. senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer urging them to adopt a nationwide suspension of all utility disconnections.
She added, “I recognize that the Authority needs to collect revenues to meet operating expenses. However, we must balance the needs of the Authority with the needs of the people during this crisis. I also know that those customers who can pay, will continue to pay and I thank them in advance.”