#socialjustice  #society  #publicpolicy  
Issue 61
February 9, 2020
__ ___ __ __ __ __ __ ___ __ __ __ __ __ _________ | \|__ /\ |__) / `/ \|\ |/ _`|__)|__ /__`/__`| |/ \|\/| /\ |\ | |__)| /\ /__`|__/|__ | | |__/|___/~~\| \ \__,\__/| \|\__>| \|___.__/.__/|/\|\__/| |/~~\| \| | |___/~~\.__/| \|___ | |

The United States Virgin Islands (USVI) consist of four major islands: Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, Saint John and Water Island, and ~50 minor islands, rock formations and coral reefs. The vast majority of USVI inhabitants reside in Saint Thomas (pop. 52,000) & Saint Croix (pop. 51,000). Approximately 5,000 people live on Saint John and ~200 on Water Island.

The USVI is an “at-large congressional district.” This means it is not entitled to designate a voting member of Congress, but can elect a delegate to participate in debates, sit on committees and advocate for the Virgin Islands. The current Congresswoman representing the USVI is Stacey Plaskett (D).

Dear Congresswoman Plaskett,

I was born in Saint Thomas and lived on the island for a few years. This past weekend, I came back to visit and spend time with one of the most wonderful women I know, a second mother to me. Her name is Marion. She 77 years old; age is beginning to catch up with her.

While chatting in her living area, I asked why she did not have her air conditioner running. She replied that she could not turn it on. I inquired if it was broken; it was not. Congresswoman Plaskett, Marion can no longer use her air conditioner because her utility bill has tripled since Virgin Islands Water & Power Authority (WAPA) restored "service" (or lack thereof) following the hurricanes that ravaged the USVI.

Ms. Plaskett, Marion is fortunate. While far from rich, despite a ~3-fold increase in her utility bill, she can still afford basic necessities, but many of your constituents can not. They are allocating such a high proportion of their income to rapidly increasing energy bills that some are being forced to go without basic goods.

Congresswoman Plaskett, to add insult to injury, WAPA’s service is nothing short of abysmal. Blackouts are so common that it is rare for your constituents to go a few days without one. Furthermore, WAPA’s representatives fail to answer basic customer complaints in a timely and professional way.

According to WAPA’s own website the average residential customer in the USVI is paying 40c per Kilowatt Hour (kWh) + a $4.86 flat rate add on per month. This by far is the highest in America.

To put this into perspective: In the continental United States, utility rates vary widely by both region and state. Rates are lowest in Louisiana (9.47c/kWh), Idaho (9.51c/kWh) & Washington (9.54c/kWh) and highest in Rhode Island (21.95c/kWh), Massachusetts (21.74c/kWh) & Connecticut (21.64c/kWh). Across all 50 states, even including outliers Hawaii (31c/kWh) and Alaska (23c/kWh), the average residential customer pays ~13c per kWh.

Using WAPA’s own published numbers as a benchmark, USVI residents pay ~4x higher for electricity than the average American. The fact that the median household income in the US Virgin Islands is $~37,000 compared to ~$61,000 in the 50 states, compounds this already untenable situation. Of course, Congresswoman Plaskett, as the current Ranking Member on the Subcommittee on the Interior, Energy and Environment, this is probably not news to you.

Congresswoman Plaskett, after conversing with Marion, it appears obvious that Hurricane Maria damaged the meter affixed to her home that tracks her individual energy use. This issue is not specific to her. She informed me that many of her friends and acquaintances on Saint Thomas have also experienced massive gyrations/spikes in their utility bills following the storm; apparently, their meters were also damaged. Ms. Plaskett, there appear to be meters throughout the entire island of Saint Thomas that are malfunctioning and reporting faulty data. The result: sky high utility bills that are not commensurate with use, independent of the highest rates in America that WAPA concedes its customers already pay.

Marion called WAPA for an explanation. They were dismissive. She asked a WAPA employee who read her meter about the drastic change; he made a note and never followed up. Then, despite it being a challenge for her physically, went in person to WAPA's office seeking answers. Once again, she got the run around.

Congresswoman Plaskett, something is clearly wrong. Why are the people of Saint Thomas paying exponentially higher energy bills? I am not pointing to a 10% or 20% increase to fix old/buy new equipment following the storm(s). While difficult for some on the island to absorb, that level of increase would be reasonable. I am pointing out that Saint Thomas residents are in some cases paying twice to quadruple what they were paying prior to the hurricanes.

Congresswoman Plaskett, Marion and the rest of your constituents are being robbed by a public utility and nobody seems to care enough help them. They deserve better. They deserve answers. They deserve respect. They deserve energy bills that are commensurate with usage and service provided. As an elected official and public servant, you have a fundamental responsibility to provide answers to the following: 1) Why Marion and her fellow citizens’ energy bills have increased exponentially while their service has gotten worse? 2) If broken meters are not the primary culprit, what is? 3) What, if anything, is being done to mitigate this situation?

Congresswoman Plaskett, please help the people of Saint Thomas "see the light." Provide answers they deserve. WAPA has kept them in the dark for far too long.

Thank You
A Concerned Citizen,
Christopher Blackman