JPS blues in St ElizabethThursday, June 10, 2021
BY GARFIELD MYERS
BLACK RIVER, St Elizabeth – Throughout the years, those attending monthly meetings of the St Elizabeth Parish Council have grown accustomed to complaints about services offered by electricity provider, Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS).
Long delays in the repair or replacement of disabled or stolen street lights have remained high on the list of grievances aired by councillors.
Good news for JPS is that over the last year or more the situation appears to have significantly improved in relation to unscheduled power cuts – a source of extreme irritation in previous years.
However, at the monthly meeting of the council last month came a new complaint related to digitisation of services across the board – a process which has accelerated since the onset of COVID-19 in March of 2020.
Former mayor of Black River and councillor for the Balaclava Division, Everton Fisher (People's National Party) led the way in an emotional report to the council about difficulties for people in his division trying to reach the JPS by telephone. This follows the closure to walk-in customers of seven JPS offices, including Black River.
Fisher claimed people who were trying to get help via the JPS helpline were often on hold for an inordinately long time “until their $200 or $300 credit run out”.
The former mayor noted that while the JPS had put in place digital options for people to access services, the poorest among Jamaicans were not being properly taken into account, since many were not able to use such options for various reasons.
Fisher cited unreliable Internet service; inaccessibility, for some people, to digital equipment, such as smartphones and computers; illiteracy; and difficulties faced by the aged in adapting to new technologies, among the difficulties.
“Don't tell me about the JPS app,” said a disgusted Fisher, to loud applause from councillors of both the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the PNP.
The JPS says it took the decision to downscale walk-in services largely because of data showing a huge downturn of such customers.
Responding to queries, Winsome Callum, JPS communications manager, said, via e-mail, that her company “announced early this year that [it] was closing seven offices because less than five per cent of our customers in the parishes served by these offices actually go into the offices to do transactions.
“Based on the low number of customers making use of these offices and the main reasons for their visits, the company recognises that we can effectively provide these services through other channels. The data shows that the primary reasons for office visits in 2020 were: bill query, account query, bill delivery, service requests. All these services can be accessed through the call centre, the JPS mobile app, and other digital platforms,” Callum said.
She cited numbers to show that visitors to the St Elizabeth JPS office had steadily declined in the last six months of 2020. The figures show that 2,968 people visited in July, while there were 2,444 in August; 2,134 in September; 1,915 in October; 1,998 in November; and 2,106 in December.
In addition to complaining about accessibility, Fisher, like other councillors at the monthly meeting in May, criticised JPS for alleged tardiness in dealing with streetlight issues in an environment of rising crime in deep rural Jamaica.
He accused the electricity provider of “samfying” the Government and people of Jamaica. This, since the current Government had cleared a multi-billion debt to JPS with the expectation that the electricity provider would have significantly improved its services.
In a follow-up interview with the Jamaica Observer, Fisher declared: “I am saying the JPS were not thoughtful when they cut the seven offices. It's causing a big problem… Another part of it is the Government, having paid $7 billion to JPS, you would expect the company to be more responsive in dealing with street lights and other complaints that the council might have.
“It is so difficult now; everything is centralised in Kingston, even to report a (disabled or missing) street light; the councillors are no longer able to report, unless they go online to do so… Persons should be able to take up a telephone, speak to a representative, lodge their complaints, whether of stolen or missing lamp, and get some attention. I don't think JPS has done enough after the Government bent backwards to pay off arrears.”
Fisher recalled that the previous PNP Administration had decided against clearing JPS debt prior to losing the 2016 election, “because we weren't getting adequate service”. However, he said, “The present Administration took a different view and with all due respect to [Finance Minister Dr Nigel Clarke], he made provision in the budget to pay off JPS, but I don't think JPS is delivering to the people of Jamaica…”
Another former mayor, Jeremy Palmer (JLP), who is councillor for the Pedro Plains Division, made no mention of the debt paid to JPS, but agreed with Fisher on other counts.
Palmer argued that JPS had no reason to reduce services or to cut costs, since, he said, the company was profitable.
Additionally, the company was covering its costs with rate increases. “JPS bills soaring… my bills keep going up and up and up,” said Palmer.
He questioned the economic benefits of the company's gradual turn to “renewables” and liquefied natural gas (LNG). “How were such changes benefiting customers?” he asked.
Palmer and others at the council meeting called for the Government to “speak” to the JPS about the various issues and “to do so publicly”.
Audie Myers (Siloah Division –PNP); Donovan Pagon (Braes River Division – PNP); Richard Solomon (New Market Division – JLP); and Cetany Holness (Junction Division – JLP) were among those rising to criticise JPS at the May monthly meeting.
Myers alleged that in recent months, local JPS operatives were no longer repairing street lights. Expertise had to come from Kingston, he said. It was a “disrespectful” move, he said.
Callum, in her e-mailed response to the Observer's queries, denied Myers' allegation. “It is not true that the repair team has to come from Kingston. The company will, from time to time, use teams from other parishes to carry out street light repairs, as needed,” she said.
She conceded that “there has been a delay in completing the street light conversion project in St Elizabeth”. However, Callum said, some “1,022 have already been converted to LED [light-emitting diode], and another 3,500 street lights are targeted for conversion to LED between August and December 2021”.
“Just over 80 per cent of street lights have already been converted to smart LED across the island. Street light repairs are ongoing and, to date, this year, almost 4,000 defective street lights have been repaired across the island.”
Regarding concerns about customer-care responses to public concerns and queries, Callum pointed to efforts to provide alternatives, including a mobile unit now being used to visit communities.
“We understand the concerns of our customers who are not able, or willing, to access the services via [digital] channels. That's why we have a mobile office that visits different communities in the parishes that no longer have offices,” she said. Callum said that recently, private business sites in Lacovia and Santa Cruz had been visited by the mobile unit to interact with customers, and this coming weekend it will go to New Market in St Elizabeth's remote north-western region.
She said the company was also working on “partnerships with… business owners across [St Elizabeth] to facilitate more of this kind of personalised service to customers”.
Regarding rising electricity costs, Callum said, “JPS does not set electricity rates. Energy charges are set by the OUR [Office of Utilities Regulation]. You would be aware that the OUR announced an average two per cent increase in rates earlier this year. On the other hand, the fuel charge on bills will move from one month to the next [up or down] based on the actual cost of fuel purchased to produce electricity sold to customers. The fuel used for electricity generation, include a mixture of oil, LNG and renewables [wind, solar, water].”
She reported fuel charges since the start of 2021 as: $27.808 per KWH in January; $22.292 KWH in February; $25.853 per KWH in March; $19.592 per KWH in April; and $24.592 per KWH in May.