Tomblin admits stemming the problem her toughest task
Jamaica Public Service President and CEO Kelly Tomblin admitting that the company’s decision to cut electricity supply to some communities, because of non-payment, pained her.
Kelly Tomblin didn’t hesitate when she admitted that the greatest challenge she faced in her five years at Jamaica Public Service Company Limited (JPS) was electricity theft.In fact, the power company’s president and CEO, who is leaving next month, managed a chuckle as she spoke about the problem that has plagued her company for decades.
“You know, it is really hard to deal with the amount of electricity theft in Jamaica, it’s really hard,” she told the Jamaica Observer with a heavy sigh.
“We estimate about 180,000 homes, that’s about a million people”, who are benefiting from electricity theft, Tomblin said in an interview at her office last Wednesday.
Frustrated by the level and persistence of the theft, JPS, in January this year, said it was ready to name, shame, and prosecute offenders — a 180-degree turn in its policy of declining to take legal action against electricity thieves who, Tomblin had disclosed last year, were costing the company US$2 million per month.
“We now strongly believe that if we do not prosecute, name and shame, we cannot win. We will therefore be working more closely with the police to make arrests and prosecution a major part of our anti-theft strategy going forward,” JPS’s Director of Revenue Security Major George Kates wrote in the company’s Energy Matters column published in the Observer in January.
But even amidst the hard approach Tomblin has empathy for Jamaicans, who she believes are unable to pay for the utility.
“My heart’s torn because you have people who absolutely cannot pay,” she lamented last Wednesday. Her pain, she said, got worse when the company took a decision to cut electricity to communities where theft was more than 80 per cent.
“That’s the one that leaves me with the most pain… that one moment of turning the power off,” she admitted.
“We can’t keep giving power to these communities and make other people pay. That was a defining moment for us, because I think we said we just cannot take this any more,” Tomblin told the Sunday Observer.
“We did cut off people, and we had a cease-and-desist order from the OUR (Office of Utilities Regulation) and public outrage, but for us it’s just like it comes to a point where you have to say the situation is not being addressed,” Tomblin explained.
Although electricity theft is now a crime punishable by a heavy fine and/or five years in prison, JPS has been working with communities to halt the practice.
That effort, Tomblin said, started under an agreement with the previous Government for a community renewal programme which involves the installation of prepaid meters.
The programme was implemented in 10 communities and appears to be working well.
“One of the things I’m proud of is, I was just in Majesty Gardens — where we have community representatives who are helping people get power,” Tomblin said.
“I’m excited because these last few months we’ve seen losses go down. We’re happy we’re seeing a downward trend, the first time in a long time. This is the best performance we’re seeing in four years,” she added.
The improvement, while not yet in double figures, is significant as, according to Winsome Callum, director, corporate communications, the company actually saw a stabilisation of the losses before the movement south.
“It was a big thing just to keep it from going up,” said Callum, who sat in on the interview.
She attributed the development to a combination of strategies. “We continue to pull down [illegal connections], but we also continue to do a lot more with technology,” Callum explained.
In 2015, JPS took down 205,300 throw-ups — basically crude, illegal connections found mostly in depressed communities — and arrested 783 people for electricity theft that resulted in a loss of US$18.8 million to the company.
The power company continues to argue that it cannot solve the problem alone; the responsibility needs to be shared by political representatives who have influence over large numbers of people, as well as law-abiding Jamaicans.
“Can you imagine what a culture change it would be if people really got legitimate electricity throughout Jamaica?” Tomblin asked.