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Sarauw: ‘It Was Highly Improper for the Governor to Write Such a Letter Supporting WAPA Rate Increases’

St. Thomas 𑁋 Governor Bryan shared a two-page memorandum on October 24th filed with the Virgin Islands Public Service Commission (PSC) in support of increasing the base rate for the Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority (WAPA). Government House shared the correspondence with the PSC just one month after Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett publicly urged Governor Bryan and Senate President Novelle Francis Jr. to consider declaring a state of emergency in light of ongoing issues plaguing WAPA.

The memo, obtained by the Virgin Islands Consortium offers special insight into Governor Bryan’s strategy to gain the support of the PSC as the base rate increase continues to be unpopular among residents and senators who grilled the authority in October. Governor Bryan’s memorandum to the PSC was not publicly shared with members of the press as ratepayers continued to protest WAPA and the proposed rate hike.

“The Public Services Commission should be void of any political influence,” Senator Sarauw said. “They are to act on behalf of the people and not with special or political interests.” Government House has said that the “Governor was simply placing his position on the record with the PSC.”

Senator Sarauw made two points on Wednesday regarding the Governor’s memo to the PSC: 

– Noting that the PSC is an independent entity that exists to protect the interests of consumers in the territory, Sarauw said it was “Improper for the Governor to request that [hearing examiner, Kye Walker, Esq] put in her findings of fact and conclusions of law that the Government supports the rate hike. She is supposed to be the independent hearing officer.”

– Sarauw also accused the administration of attempting to inject politics into the commission’s record. Bryan’s correspondence to the PSC opens with the statement, “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 memo continues, “The Government’s support of the base rate increase is conditioned on the current opportunity to effectuate the increase with minimal impact to the ratepayers.” 

“The fiscal challenges of the authority have been made clear and transparent to the public,” the memo reads. Other elected officials have publicly stated that there are issues with top-level management at WAPA. Near the end of that 11-hour Senate oversight hearing, Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said, “we are leaving here with a lot of unanswered questions.”

Frett-Gregory in her testimony at the authority’s investigative hearing in October expressed frustration in getting clear answers from officials on company finances and general operations.

 “The Governor’s memo was submitted to the Public Services Commission during their public comment period in October,” Government House director of communications, Richard Motta Jr. said. “The Governor was simply placing his position on record with the PSC, as they sought input from the public.”

Government House has stated that Bryan’s memo was submitted during the public comment period, however, its existence was not included in any public releases made to the press. The memo became known after the Consortium’s reporting this week nearly a month after it was initially filed with the PSC. Bryan’s position regarding WAPA remains the same according to Motta.

“The Governor had expressed this same position in two press conferences in September and in numerous media interviews when he was asked about the Delegate’s call for a State of Emergency,” Motta added. Plaskett has doubled down on her support for a state of emergency meant to fix issues affecting WAPA and its operations in the territory.

In a phone call with the press that took place on November 7th, the Congresswoman noted that Bryan is contradicting the transition report created by individuals he hand-picked before his inauguration. The transition report painted a gloomy picture for WAPA and its finances, even going as far as mentioning that the authority was insolvent. 

“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.”

“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,” the memo ends. 

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