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VIDEO: JPS talks tough

Company vows to end free ride of 200,000 electricity thieves

BY KARYL WALKER Editor — Crime/Court Desk walkerk@jamaicaobserver.com

Friday, May 16, 2014    

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THE Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS) has signalled its intention to be even more resolute in wiping out electricity theft which, it said, has cost it more than US$70 million over the past two years and is threatening its viability.

"We are not going to sit back and let this continue. It requires huge measures. We have tried the simple measures," JPS head Kelly Tomblin said yesterday, despite heeding an Office of Utilities Regulation decree to end its practice of turning off power in communities where theft is rampant.

Tomblin said the company would go under if the thieves are not reined in, as 200,000 non-paying users of energy are raping the company and, by effect, are punishing those who pay as the cost is defrayed to them.

"We are spending every month $1.8 billion to buy fuel that is stolen. That's about 18 per cent of our fuel bill. $11 billion was stolen last year. The cost is shared by JPS and customers. Thieves use three times the amount of energy than paying customers. The move is to protect paying customers," Tomblin said during a press conference at the company's Knutsford Boulevard headquarters yesterday.

She said the company had lost US$73 million to electricity theft in the last two years and pointed out that if the 200,000 energy thieves would pay up, then electricity rates would drop by an average of 11 per cent across the board.

"Theft is no longer an option. We are going to find a real solution to a problem that has impacted you and us," she said.

The company is contending that electricity theft has resulted in higher bills, an unreliable supply and damage to legitimate customers' appliances and equipment.

Light thieves, Tomblin said, have no inclination to conserve due to the fact that the energy they use is of no cost to them.

She said the problem was islandwide, cuts across social and geographic boundaries and was perpetrated by commercial and residential customers.

She hinted that if the theft continued, the company might have to draw down its shutters.

"The ship is going to sink under the weight of this. If the trajectory continues, it's insolvency," she said.

Despite the implementation of the Residential Automated Metering System (RAMI) and the Commercial Automated Metering System (CAMI) the company seems to be fighting a losing battle in ridding itself of the burden of energy theft.

Figures released by JPS indicate that electricity theft has increased by 110 per cent in the last decade.

JPS Senior Vice-President Gary Barrow said the situation has reached crisis proportions.

"Electricity is the most stolen product in Jamaica at any given time. The theft of electricity continues to escalate. It has reached crisis proportions now. When you get desperate you have to use desperate measures," he said.

Barrow said the problem was a socio-economic one that requires a multi-pronged approach, as despite hundreds of meetings with communities known for high instances of theft people are still refusing to pay.

On Tuesday, representatives of the company met with Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller and Transport and Works Minister Omar Davies to defend their decision to limit the power supply to communities with high levels of stealing.

Barrow said 89 per cent of the residents in the community of Jones Town steal electricity, while 86 per cent of the residents in Seaward Drive, Olympic Gardens and Cling Cling Avenue do not pay. In Trench Town, Denham Town and Wilton Gardens (Rema) 70 per cent of the residents steal light, while 73 per cent of those in Central Village in St Catherine use electricity but refuse to pay.

Tomblin said she was assured by the prime minister, in whose constituency some of the blacklisted communities are located, that a team was being set up to speak to the residents and urge them to get regularised.

The communities of Rema, Trench Town and Jones Town are in Davies' constituency, while Cling Cling Avenue and Seaward Drive are located in the constituency of Opposition Leader Andrew Holness.

Barrow said the company was resolute to get illegal users off the grid and said JPS would continue investigations, raids and installing automated meters.

In addition, JPS will be seeking to have a closer partnership with the Government to lobby for new legislation to impose tougher penalties on individuals caught illegally abstracting electricity.

Tomblin pointed to India where jail time is automatic if one is found guilty of stealing energy, and in Texas, USA where stealing more than US$1,500 worth of electricity is a federal crime punishable by imprisonment.

The company also promised to embark upon a social intervention programme which would see a limited subsidised rate for the most vulnerable in the society, which would be tied to energy consumption limited to 200 kilowatt hours and a community development initiative involving skills training and job creation.

JPS is also set to roll out a pilot project to unveil a prepaid service and a conservation education drive.

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