Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Hope Pastures deserves better

Published:Sunday | January 10, 2016 | 1:00 AMFayval Williams

What do residents in a community do when they do not want a vital service delivered in a particular way but the monopoly provider insists on providing it a different way? The history of Hope Pastures residents' efforts to prevent its underground electricity distribution system from being converted to an overhead system, with utility poles and wires strewn across the community, has been well chronicled in many articles and discussion forums.

In meetings with community groups involving lawyers, Jamaica Public Service Company (JPS), Office of the Utilities Regulation (OUR) and residents (the most important stakeholders), I see and hear the frustration of residents with the monopoly utility company. I am furious at the obstinacy of JPS and the failing of the Government to be on the people's side.

Let's begin by asking an obvious question: Are the residents of Hope Pastures unreasonable in insisting that their community's underground electricity distribution system be preserved and not be converted to an overhead system?

According to an undergrounding report, "The literature most commonly attributes to underground distribution systems the following improvements as compared to overhead distribution systems: (1) more reliable electric service with fewer failures (2) more economical to maintain and service, (3) safer, (4) positive value to nearby property, and (5) more desirable during adverse weather."

The report also itemised other potential benefits of underground electric facilities. These include improved aesthetics, lower tree-trimming costs, lower storm damage and restoration costs, reduced live-wire contact, fewer outages during normal weather, far fewer momentary interruptions, improved utility relations regarding tree trimming, elimination of vehicular pole collision, and fewer structures impacting sidewalks.

For balance, the same report also detailed the negative effects of undergrounding. These include (1) possible negative impacts on sensitive environmental areas, (2) higher costs (3) lower life expectancy, (4) reduced operational flexibility and higher costs for some types of maintenance.

The Hope Pastures housing scheme was approved in 1961 by the government of the day. One of the major features was that the electric and telephone cables were underground. In fact, parliamentarians referred to the Hope Pastures housing scheme as a 'model scheme'. Research shows that "the additional feature of the underground wiring was reflected in the expensive nature of the scheme, with prices of the houses ranging from PS4,550 to PS5,250. Indeed, when the Mona Housing Scheme was developed a few years earlier, the cost of the houses was PS2,900."

 

Unfair for homeowners

 

This underground system has served the community well over the decades. As with any system, there is need for scheduled maintenance and repair. Residents argue that Hope Pastures' underground electric distribution system lacked maintenance and hence the current state of affairs and the utility's push to convert to an overhead system. If the underground systems were to be unilaterally replaced with what JPS wants, that would be quite unfair for the homeowners who already paid the additional cost for the underground system.

In November 2015, just a few months ago, the residents of Hope Pastures, who took the JPS to court, obtained an injunction barring JPS from disconnecting them from the underground electrical system. This is a major step in pursuit of what is right by the people.

A report sent to my desk detailed how badly things have been for Hope Pastures residents.

On two occasions, one resident reports stumbling in the dark, hitting her head and face that fortunately only required ice therapy. This could have been fatal for the elderly.

Records show that over the past five years, the JPSCO has invested more than US$100 million to reduce electricity theft from the general overhead system across Jamaica, but with minimal success. They have spent approximately J$1.4 billion after Hurricane Ivan for damage to the overhead systems; yet, refused to spend the funds to replace the Hope Pastures underground cables.

I highlight the following paragraphs in the report:

After checking, approximately 75% of the community is still being served by underground electricity. So why are residents being forced to connect to a cheap overhead supply that has already burned, blown fuses and is fraught with risks and potential problems especially when global warming and hurricanes will be increasing?

The truth is that the JPS is responsible to fix and can afford to replace the entire Hope Pastures underground system, but a more serious problem has arisen between the Hope Pastures residents and the JPS as the company has been disingenuous about its inability to replace the underground cables and about its non-involvement with the installation of the original underground system.

Those erroneous statements forced some residents who feared disconnection, if they failed to prepare for overhead connections within a certain time, to have been set back by as much as J$300,000, and so far no compensations. Others, whose contracts and rights to receive underground service, for which this area of Hope Pastures was specifically designed, have been violated by disconnections. This is shocking, because all Jamaican citizens held the JPS to a higher standard of service, commitment and respect to its loyal paying customers.

While the JPS tries to defend the indefensible, some residents are still disconnected from the contracted underground electricity supply for a forced, indefinite, extended period without compensation. The stress is unbelievable.

I therefore urge the residents to press on even as all stakeholders hope for an amicable agreement. The fight against large corporations worldwide, especially monopoly corporations, is never easy, but many times justice prevails.

- Fayval Williams is Jamaica Labour Party caretaker for Eastern St Andrew. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and fayval.williams.eastern@gmail.com.