KISSIMMEE, Fla. – After Hurricane Maria, a small Montana company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, was awarded a $300 million contract to restore Puerto Rico's power. The company then hired other utility companies to fill the need for labor and equipment, including Florida companies.
The Kissimmee Utility Authority was one of those companies that sent equipment and workers as a subcontractor for Whitefish. Six linemen spent 36 days working 16-hour days to get the island back on the power grid.
Whitefish Energy Holdings was awarded the contract with Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, as two-year old company that had only two full-time employees until more recently, reported NPR News. Whitefish then charged PREPA $319 an hour for the subcontractors who were paid an average of $42 an hour plus overtime, according to KUA.
Whitefish spokesman Ken Luce told News 6 that the "'lineman rate' has been misreported and is very misunderstood."
"FEMA instructed PREPA and thus Whitefish to craft a universal rate sheet for all positions in the contract," Luce said in an email to News 6. "This universal rate also insured PREPA that the prices would not vary due to increased costs over the term of the work. The rates had to apply across all contracts no matter what rate a subcontractor might charge for the work."
PREPA canceled the contract with Whitefish after the steep overcharges came to light and the Puerto Rican governor ordered an audit of the contract.
Kissimmee Utility Authority officials say they have not been paid by Whitefish for equipment costs totaling $400,000. KUA paid their workers, but is also awaiting reimbursement from Whitefish for labor costs.
"It was just unusual to start with, but I had find out that PREPA had made an advance payment to Whitefish of seven figures so I felt confident, I think we all did, that payment would not be the biggest risk we had," KUA vice president Grant Lacerte said.
Luce disputed the allegations of nonpayment and said the company is waiting on PREPA to pay first.
"Whitefish Energy has been promptly turning over payments to subcontractors once PREPA pays invoices for such work," Luce said. "Whitefish continues to work with PREPA to expedite the payment of invoices for all subcontractors."
But KUA has yet to receive a single payment from Whitefish and if the company doesn't pay soon Kissimmee taxpayers will be forced to foot the bill, Lacerte said.
"That does fall back on the taxpayers and that's why we insist and we continue to insist that we get paid in full for our good-faith efforts," Lacerte said.
Rep. Darren Soto (D-Florida) said the situation was unacceptable.
"Our staff is working with the Kissimmee Utility Authority to see that power crews are paid for the hard work performed and that taxpayer resources are safeguarded," Soto said. "I call on the responsible parties to resolve this matter immediately.”