Tue | Aug 4, 2020

Burning rubber - Tyre woes bleed JUTC as maintenance issues put passengers in danger, reports reveal

Published:Sunday | August 2, 2020 | 12:00 AMJovan Johnson and Edmond Campbell - Senior Staff Reporters
In this July 2013 photo, then Transport Minister Dr Omar Davies (second left) and Permanent Secretary Audrey Sewell listen, as Jamaica Ultimate Tyre Company Limited (JUTC II) Factory Manager Hugh Smith (left) explains the tyre retreading process being undertaken by company employee, Ecolas Hughes. The entity, which specialises in tyre retreading, repairs and sales, and computerised wheel alignment and balancing of vehicles is an agency of the ministry.
Paul Abrahams, JUTC managing director.
JUTC Chairman Russell Hadeed.
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Hundreds of commuters were unknowingly risking their lives as the state-owned and taxpayer-burdening Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) battled poor tyre record-keeping and disregard for protocols, leaked documents have revealed.

A struggle to maintain internal controls, multiple failures to act promptly to fix problems and a seeming routine ignoring of recommendations dominate several internal reports covering the past five years, which have been seen by The Sunday Gleaner.

One of the more alarming reports includes the concerns over the quality of tyres and their maintenance that officials raised in apparent frustration but with little matching action.

In fact, one 2017 report described a “fix now, analyse later” maintenance “philosophy” it said existed at the entity’s depot in Rockfort, east Kingston.

Internal assessors complained that there was no tracking or history analysis being done on a consistent basis to reduce the need for repairs, which led to poor maintenance planning.

That state of affairs, the document continued, was having “clear and identifiable” effects and which manifested in decreased lifespan of tyres and increased likelihood for breakdowns of buses.

Those added to the financial woes of the unprofitable public bus company that has been surviving on annual government bailouts, which for the period 2014/2015 – 2017/2018 amounted to approximately $9 billion.

The company is projected to lose almost $6 billion this fiscal year after the deduction of just over $5 billion in government subvention.

EXCEEDED TYRE BUDGET

For the financial year ending March 31, 2018, the Rockfort depot alone exceeded its tyre budget by 20 per cent or $14 million, noted a March 2019 report, which did not include the projected spend for that year.

“Lack of bus tyre history cards makes it extremely difficult to have a precise idea of where tyre overuse is occurring; for example, if it relates only to buses of a certain age, particular routes, etc,” it added.

JUTC management also knew that established maintenance procedures were “not being thoroughly adhered to”, the documents further revealed, before pointing out that there was not strict compliance to the policy of using retreaded tyres on the rear of buses instead of new ones.

“This is evidenced in 223 tyres being consumed by nine buses in an eight-month span, with one bus in particular utilising 38,” read the 2019 report. It also noted that poor record-keeping led to a pair of discarded tyres being issued to another bus.

The average tyre use of buses is not clear and calls by The Sunday Gleaner to JUTC’s management have gone unanswered.

The reports focused heavily on the financial costs to the company with little mention of the safety implications for drivers and passengers who use the bus service.

The JUTC has been averaging rougly 1,000 accidents annually in recent years. Last year, the company’s buses were involved in 845 crashes, at least eight of which were fatal. The bus company has not indicated how many, if any, were due to tyre issues.

These latest revelations come amid the public outrage flowing from last month’s damning report by the Auditor General’s Department, which has raised serious questions about the state entity’s governance, financial transparency and human resource practices.

The Russell Hadeed-chaired JUTC board’s first response was to call last Friday for Pamela Monroe Ellis to retract the report, alleging that it contains inaccurate information. That has been dismissed by the auditor general.

But the JUTC did not outline precisely why some of the problems flagged by the auditor general remained even after its managing director, Paul Abrahams, committed to Parliament in 2017 to have them addressed.

In November 2017, Abrahams, who is in his second stint as managing director, appeared before the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), which raised concerns that the bus company was overstaffed.

Committee members complained that the 500 excess staff were costing an additional $25 million monthly.

Abrahams told committee members that the company was carrying out an ongoing rationalisation exercise, stating that following its completion, the necessary action would be undertaken by the Ministry of Transport and Mining, which oversees the bus service.

In its recent report, however, the Auditor General’s Department said JUTC had more than 508 positions which had not been approved by the finance ministry, costing taxpayers $1.15 billion for the period April 2014 to July 2019. JUTC was approved for 1,652 positions in 2014.

In its response, the JUTC acknowledged the staffing issue, saying it has been a long-standing one stretching back over 10 years, and that the company has been working with the unions, Ministry of Transport and Mining and the Ministry of Finance and the Public Service to rectify the issues.

Some 146 bus cleaners are on the payroll, 62 more than what the finance ministry approved. A total of 222 extra drivers and 27 unapproved mechanics were also pointed out among breaches.

BACK TO SCHOOL

Among the auditor general’s findings is the revelation that six senior managers, including the managing director and two deputies in engineering and human resources, did not meet the minimum qualifications for their jobs.

JUTC was also flagged for making car rental payments of US2,400 monthly for its managing director for 114 calendar days, totalling $1.2 million, without approval from the finance ministry.

The JUTC management also exceeded its overtime budget by $728.6 million, despite the excess staff capacity.

Drivers and mechanics accounted for the 15 highest overtime claims. The situation was acute at the Spanish Town and Ashenheim Road locations, where claims ranged between 71 per cent and 182 per cent of some of the employees’ annual salaries.

Documents obtained by The Sunday Gleaner indicate that the board and the management of the bus company were aware of the overtime issue but were struggling to deal with it.

An assessment in 2018 revealed concerns about supervision and a breakdown of the monitoring systems to ensure employees were not over-claiming.

The finance department had reportedly suggested the employment of ‘night managers’ to prevent just one supervisor approving overtime.

IGNORED RECOMMENDATIONS

Another report noted that there was a greater need for focus on productivity.

In another instance, there were formal complaints for the management to review the third shift at its locations across the Corporate Area because “there’s still no value in terms of the number of people assigned versus the amount of work being done”.

The enforcement of contracts was also another problematic issue. Payment was reportedly made to a contractor to dismantle and remove derelict buses from a depot between May 7, 2018 and June 25, 2018. However, up to six months later, there was no dismantling.

Failure to pursue some of the recommendations was placed on the board, which the auditor general said did not implement proposals by the internal auditor.

“Recommendations of the internal auditor were either ignored or not adequately addressed, which heightened the risk of financial losses,” said the report which covered the period March 2014-April 2019.

Friday’s JUTC board statement did not explain why those recommendations to the directors were not followed through.

It did note, however, that employees without the required qualifications must enrol in school by this September to begin a process of compliance.

The board also explained that the entity has been making some progress containing costs, but said “since the inception of the JUTC, the bus company has been hampered by the vicissitudes of the sociopolitical climate in which it operates and the lack of continuity in policy”.

The 22-year-old JUTC falls under the Ministry of Transport, which is headed by Robert Montague, who is yet to comment publicly on the matter.

The auditor general slammed the transport ministry, saying it “found no instance where the board was held accountable by the ministry for breaches”.

The bus company mainly serves Kingston, St Andrew and parts of St Catherine. Those parishes account for almost 42 per cent of the country’s population.

“The problems are well known. The challenge has always been about ministers who do not take any serious action and boards which follow suit.”

Douglas Chambers, a former JUTC chairman hailed in some circles for his reforming zeal, was gunned down outside the company’s depot in Spanish Town, St Catherine, in 2007.

An accused killer was freed in 2017 but last year, Tesha Miller, reputed leader of the Spanish Town-based Clansman gang, was found guilty of accessory before and after the fact to the murder.

editorial@gleanerjm.com