Sept. 12, 2005 A bill forcing the Water and Power Authority to reduce the security deposit charged to residential customers for new and transferred meter service was approved by senators Monday despite strong opposition from WAPA's director Alberto Bruno-Vega.
"While I recognize and accept the Senate's power to legislate WAPA's rates, I believe that the Public Services Commission, who has been mandated by the government to regulate the utility, is in a better position to determine the reasonableness of rates, fees and charges," Bruno-Vega said. He added that such a "piece-meal attempt" to change the rules by which WAPA determines the security deposit it charges customers will erode the protection the security deposit provides to the utility and residents.
The bill was approved by the Committee of Government Operations and Consumer Protection. It seeks to:
— Prohibit WAPA from billing a new customer for the debt of a prior customer, or from refusing service to a new customer for the non-payment of another customer. Bruno-Vega said this is not necessary because WAPA already engages in this practice. "We only charge new customers for the debt of an old customer if that old customer has defaulted and is clearly applying for service under a different name to avoid the payment of past due amounts," Bruno-Vega said;
— Mandate that WAPA charge customers who have a service history with the utility a security deposit equal to one month's actual billing within six months after a new application for service has been filed. This amount, however, cannot exceed $250. Currently, WAPA charges customers a security deposit equal to two months actual billing with a new service application;
— Charge customers who have no credit history with WAPA within the six months preceding the application for service or change of service a security deposit equal to one month's billing, or a maximum of $100 per application, depending on which amount is lower;
— Charge commercial customers a security deposit that is the average of two month's actual billing if the business has a service history with WAPA, or two month's estimated billing if the business has had no service with WAPA.
Bruno-Vega explained that during the 30 days it takes to disconnect a customer for not paying their WAPA bill, residents who have defaulted still receive service. "Therefore, at the point of disconnection, there will be two month's power usage outstanding," Bruno-Vega said. "That is the rationale for basing the security deposit for customers with a history with WAPA on two month's actual usage."
For those customers without a history with the utility, Bruno-Vega said that WAPA already charges $100. "If you reduce the two-month security deposit to one month, WAPA will suffer a significant loss in funds. We're already having cash flow problems, and this will not help," Bruno-Vega said.
As of July 31, Bruno-Vega added that the collection of a two-month deposit had generated approximately $16.6 million. "That figure is going to greatly reduce if this bill is passed," he said.
As a compromise, an amendment offered by Sen. Liston Davis stated that WAPA may charge a $20 fee to obtain the credit report of an applicant who requests electric service. If the applicant has a good credit rating, then no security deposit is charged. If the applicant has a bad credit rating, then WAPA could institute a security deposit based on the previous payment history of the premises on which the application is filed. This deposit is not to exceed two month's actual billing.
Senators also took action on a number of bills which have already appeared throughout the year, including a bill to enact the Carnival Promotion Act of 2006 (see "Carnival Committee Chairman Defies Senate Committee") and a bill prohibiting certain practices currently exhibited by members of some of the territory's boards and commissions.
Under the Carnival Promotion Act, St. Thomas' annual festival will be regulated through the Department of Tourism. The commissioner of that department will establish an Office of Carnival Promotions and appoint an office director. The funds for Carnival will also flow from the Tourism Department, rather than from the Finance Department to the various Carnival Committees.
Senators were encouraged to pass the bill after Tourism's assistant commissioner Monique Sibilly-Hodge said she did not know how the $300,000 mandated by law to be allocated to the Carnival Committee each year from the Tourism Revolving Fund was spent. "We keep no record of what happens to the money after we give it to the Department of Housing, Parks, and Recreation to be disbursed to the Committee," Sibilly-Hodge said.
A bill prohibiting members sitting on the territory's various boards and commissions to be employees of the agency affiliated with the board or commission was also passed by senators Monday. Senators said this measure was necessary to ensure transparency and accountability.
"I don't even think we have an accurate count of everyone sitting on these boards and commissions," Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said. Donastorg and other senators were surprised when Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone said he does have a full accounting especially since no one else in the Legislature has one.
Malone said that he would circulate copies of the list.
A bill adding new language to the V.I. Code to allow all non-union employees to file action against the government in the event of an unfair dismissal, demotion or suspension was also approved by senators Monday.
A bill that requires all meetings of the Public Services Commission to be open to the public and be televised on the Government Access Channel, as well as a bill to enact a five-year moratorium on the issuance of tavern keeper business licenses in Christiansted and Frederiksted, were held in the Committee of Government Operations and Consumer Protection until the next scheduled meeting.
Present at Monday's session were Sens. Liston Davis, Donastorg, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone, Russell, Usie R. Richards and Celestino A. White Sr. Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson was absent.
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