Home News Local news WAPA CHIEF: RETIREMENT BILL WILL AFFECT RATES

WAPA CHIEF: RETIREMENT BILL WILL AFFECT RATES

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July 24, 2001 – The Water and Power Authority's new executive director, Joseph Thomas, says a recently passed Senate proposal to extend early retirement to certain WAPA hazardous-duty employees is a "mistake we'll all pay for."
"The bill has good intentions, without a good sense of accounting," Thomas said at Tuesday's meeting of the WAPA governing board on St. Thomas. "No [other] utility in the civilized world has that kind of plan."
In a calm, determined voice, he added, "It will have a rate impact."
Thomas has said before that potential outside investors in a community look at its government and its utility companies for clues to its economic health. The players in economic development need to be fiscally sound, he said Tuesday, and, "At some point in time, we're all going to have to sober up."
While he would "like to give the employees anything they need," Thomas said, he cannot do so to the detriment of the authority. He suggested the board members lobby Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to veto the measure, which was a part of the massive supplemental appropriation bill the Senate approved last Thursday. He added, glancing at a reporter and smiling, "I've already started lobbying."
The governor has 10 days to act on the bill before it becomes law with or without his signature. None of the legislation passed by the full Senate last week has been sent to Government House. An official of the legislative legal counsel's office said Tuesday the bills and amendments were still being reviewed. When the governor vetoes legislation, it takes 10 votes in the Legislature to overturn that veto. As of last week, the majority bloc consisted of nine senators.
Thomas suggested other ways of increasing benefits for WAPA employees, such as providing more technical training and beefing up the utility's college scholarship program. When he met recently with employees, he told the board, their main issue was "training, not salary."
Glen Byron, WAPA human resources director, said 1986 language in WAPA's definition of hazardous-duty employees is "flawed." It covers all power plant and other employees, including secretarial, he said, and refers to some hazards that no longer exist.
Laurence Bryan, Government Employees Retirement System administrator, took issue with the measure at a Senate Finance Committee meeting earlier this month, saying it would lead to "bankrupting" the system. The bill was sponsored by the Finance chair, Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen.
At Tuesday's board meeting, Thomas also voiced displeasure with the Public Services Commission, expressing wonder at its fees for rate investigations. "I've worked for a company many times the size of WAPA, and the rates were nowhere near what this PSC charges," he said. The board approved a final payment of $147,300 to the commission for fiscal year 2001 investigations.
"We ought to have better control over what we pay," Thomas said, noting that the commission's Fiscal Year 2001 charge of $400,000 is up $100,000 from FY 2000. He asked what happens to any unspent fee assessments. Board member Andrew Rutnik, commissioner of Licensing and Consumer Affairs and a former PSC member, said it goes into the General Fund. Rutnik said he has hopes for a more effective PSC, noting that Turnbull recently nominated five new commission members for seats that have been vacant or occupied by individuals whose terms have expired for some time. The nominees must be approved by the Legislature.
The board also discussed Senate President Almando "Rocky" Liburd's recent legislation appropriating $2.5 million to build a desalinization plant in Cruz Bay, St. John, and a substation in Coral Bay. Thomas said WAPA is "aggressively pursuing" a strategy for St. John's water problem which will be announced soon. The matter was not discussed before the board went into executive session.
Kent Bernier, the governor's economic adviser, sat in on the meeting. He said he was there to represent the governor and that Turnbull is forming a new alliance between the Port Authority and the Public Finance Authority — and wants WAPA to join in.
Bernier said the governor expects the infrastructure alliance to find ways of avoiding duplication of costs, including insurance. "We need WAPA to be a major player in this," he said.
In other action, the WAPA board:
– Extended the current budget until it adopts the Fiscal Year 2002 budget.
– Approved several already budgeted projects: the purchase of a new de-aerator for St. Croix's Unit 11; replacement of a boiler and roof tubes for the same unit; and emergency repairs to the St. Thomas Unit 15 generator.
– Approved the FY 2002 fuel oil agreement with Hovensa.
– Said a new Unit 22 on St. Thomas, which has been delayed, will be on line in early August.
– Approved Inter-Ocean Insurance Agency as its property insurance carrier.
– Approved an emergency maintenance contract with six potential bidders.
– Discussed line losses of kilowatt hours; Thomas said the local losses are three to four times what he is accustomed to seeing.
Board members attending the meeting in addition to Rutnik were the board chair, Carol M. Burke; and William E. Lomax, J.Arthur Downing, G. Luz James and Alphonso Franklin. Absent were Dean Plaskett, Planning and Natural Resources commissioner; Ira Hobson, Housing, Parks and Recreation commissioner; and Claude A. Molloy Sr.

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