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Op-ed: Changing…The…Course? Understanding Governor Bryan’s Support for WAPA

In a two-page memo filed to the V.I. (PSC) discussing the upcoming base rate case, first-term Governor Albert Bryan Jr. showed unwavering support for a proposed Virgin Islands Water & Power Authority (WAPA) base rate increase. Bryan also asked for the independent commission’s “firm support of the Government of the Virgin Islands for granting base rate relief be included in the findings of facts and conclusions of the hearing examiner.”

Governor Bryan’s memorandum reads,

“While we have a strong desire to suppress any escalation of the electric rates for obvious political and economic reasons, we also understand that starving VIWAPA of the cash resources it requires to conduct basic operations is not a prudent solution. The utility needs to be authorized to charge a base rate that reflects its current operating expenses and create sufficient liquidity to retain the confidence of the financial markets.”

He also wrote about government and the economy,

“As a government, we don’t have the luxury of second-guessing or ignoring the decisions made by our predecessors. Government is a continuum and we must live with the decisions made by prior leaders and own up to those obligations. How we learn from the decisions of the past and move towards future progress for our community is what matters most.”

This quote above seems to contradict the previous platform of the then gubernatorial candidate. During the 2018 election then-candidate, Albert Bryan Jr. became popular for his invitation for Virgin Islanders to “Change the Course” by voicing their concerns at the polls. This was a direct challenge to then-Governor Kenneth Mapp.

Contrary to what Governor Bryan states in his memo, accepting “the minimal” raise in electricity is not the only proposed route to take. Congresswoman Plaskett, for example, proposes that the Virgin Islands declare a state of emergency due to the current state of the territory’s complex electrical grids, water distribution systems and the reoccurring multi-island blackouts at the hands of WAPA. This could lead to more emergency funding for the restructuring and hardening of this territory’s critical infrastructure.

Plaskett’s proposed state of emergency coincides directly with the current state of the territory. With power outages throughout the territory in what seems to occur multiple times a week, all while some Virgin Islands citizens report that they received water and power bills in an excess of $3,000.

On Wednesday, Senator Sarauw said it was improper for Governor Bryan to file a memorandum with the Public Service Commission. Sarauw cited political influence in an independent process meant to protect ratepayers and consumers in a number of local markets. “The Governor was simply placing his position on record with the PSC, as they sought input from the public,” Government House said in a statement.

“The people of the Virgin Islands have a right to be livid regarding the posture the executive branch has taken on WAPA,” Sarauw said. “WAPA simply cannot ask for increases when they have made no changes internally to show they are willing to do things differently. There are still exorbitant rents, exorbitant credit card usage, bills are still being estimated and customers continue to overpay based on these wrong estimates.”

The problem is that the public only learned about the existence of the memo this week. As public conversation about the rate hike continued, the memo surfaced nearly a month later. It also goes to show the lengths the government is willing to go to ensure that WAPA receives the cash it says it needs to continue operations at its power plants.

While Governor Bryan maintains the right to petition the PSC on matters like this, residents don’t seem to be sold that he is representing the interests of consumers and what they are demanding from WAPA — accountability, transparency and reliable service.

The memorandum from Government House continues,

“The condition provides an immediate offset to the overall customer rates of 3.08 cents per kilowatt-hour. VIWAPA is also currently petitioning for a reduction in the fuel surcharge (LEAC) of 2.56 cents per kilowatt-hour. When compared to the requested increase of 5.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. As the Government would like to avoid any rate increases, that is a reality we can live with. The LEAC rate reduction will remain in effect for at least six months, which provides us time to continue the implementation of the necessary cost-cutting measures such as the refinancing of the VITOL capital expenditure debt.”

The proposed increase in rates is a common solution that long-living Virgin Islanders are all too familiar with. Bryan also pointed out in the memo that residents would see “minimal impact” to their bills if the new base rate is approved. Knowing all of this, the question is simply, is this the course the Virgin Islands will stay on? Is Governor Bryan truly the change Virgin Islanders expected when they cast their ballots in 2018? Governor Bryan is still just months into his first term and only weeks away from delivering his second State of the Territory Address in 2020.

The PSC will hold a public hearing to consider the base rate increase for WAPA on December 11th.