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Featured / News / Virgin Islands / October 2, 2019

The first of two public meetings this week that are crucial to the future of WAPA became a slow roast of Water and Power Authority executives by legislators who themselves are feeling the heat from angry constituents.

Virgin Islands Senate members brought utility officials and key regulators before a 10 a.m. Committee of the Whole session Tuesday that quickly saw WAPA Chief Executive Lawrence Kupfer reading, word-for-word, 30-plus printed pages of an opening defense of the authority’s record.

Displaying its legislative prerogative, the Senate then held Mr. Kupfer and other subpoenaed witnesses for a marathon 11-hour, 42-minute investigative hearing, after which senators left clearly unsatisfied with the answers they received.

Senate President Novelle Francis said the exhaustive questioning left him and his colleagues with “ … many, many unanswered questions.”

For much of the day, a small but vocal group of anti-WAPA protestors chanted slogans and carried signs outside of the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Building in Charlotte Amalie.

“We have to stand up to WAPA,” said Eurman Fahie, who came from St. Croix to protest WAPA. “We have to stand up against these rates and this service we get. We have to be heard before anything changes. But we need more people to show up before they hear our voice.” 

Legislators have heard the messages loudly and clearly. 

“There has been a loss of faith in WAPA because of a lack transparency. There is always an excuse for the way something was done instead of the leadership accepting responsibility and moving on,” said Sen. Allison DeGarzon in a final round of questioning, well into the evening. 

“One of the key takeaways I leave here with is that we definitively have accountability issues at WAPA, and WAPA needs to commit to addressing them,” said Sen. Athneil Thomas. “We have to work together as stakeholders and leaders to address everyday issues, not hide behind the curtains. Be honest and upfront with the community.” 

Yesterday’s hearing was streamed live and watched by tens of thousands of viewers on the Consortium’s Facebook platform and other sites. On Thursday, the power authority goes before the VI Public Services Commission, again seeking approval of an immediate 3 cents per-kilowatt-hour increase in the base utility rate charged to consumers.

While PSC board members who testified Tuesday were unable to comment specifically on the upcoming rate proposal, Chairman Raymond Williams told lawmakers that reforms that give the PSC real power to regulate WAPA is needed. ” … WAPA had been provided rates and funding for new generation and other activities, and WAPA had diverted the money,” Mr. Williams said. 

Lawmakers had open lanes to question Mr. Kupfer and other WAPA officials about a very wide range of concerns. Credit cards were one.

WAPA had been ordered to turn over detailed information about roughly a dozen credit cards carried by authority employees. Employee names and job titles were revealed, but little other requested information was provided.

For example: 

Only under questioning did WAPA Chief Financial Officer Debra E. Gottlieb reveal that the dozen WAPA credit card holders have a combined credit limit of $100,000. Those cardholders include Ms. Gottlieb, who said she and other employees who travel between islands need a credit card for expenses.

 “Are you trying to justify some ridiculous luxuries?,” Sen. Kurt Vialet asked. “Why do you need 12 credit cards? Has anyone done an analysis of why 12 individuals need credit cards?”

Ms. Gottlieb said an analysis of card usage is underway. 

Sen. Janelle k. Sarauw called the financial data provided by Mr. Kupfer and WAPA officials “inconsistent” and insufficient to help legislators craft thoughtful policy changes. “Their numbers were everywhere. Your contract information is sketchy. Revenues never went toward intended purposes for years.” 

Robert Moore

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Last updated at 6:12 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019 Emergency Medical Technicians in St. Croix and St. Thomas, employees...

October 1, 2019