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Monday, April 21, 2014

Lawmakers take turns excoriating CUC

At least three members of the Legislature, including the chairmen of both the House and Senate public utilities committees, are dissatisfied with the performance of Commonwealth Utilities Corp. management, which they claim continues to engage in questionable contracts and unnecessary purchases at the expense of ratepayers.

Rep. Frank Dela Cruz, who appeared at the Commonwealth Public Utilities Commission hearing on Monday, questioned CUC’s judgment when it recently purchased new vehicles that he described as non fuel-efficient, costing the agency substantial “unnecessary expenses.”

He also questioned the alleged relocation of a group of employees to a rental space in Oleai that costs the cash-strapped CUC some $10,000 rentals, as well as the installation of a modern security system for the management office and a bathroom for its executive director.

Dela Cruz also disagreed with CUC contracting a private company to perform call center services for the agency.

“With these, maybe we should ask CUC what cost-cutting measures it has been doing. They extended the Dandan office and begun renting another office [in Oleai], they contracted out its call center to a private company, and even purchased automobiles that are not efficient. It appears to me that CUC has done nothing to reduce its operating costs,” said Dela Cruz during the public comment period of the CPUC hearing.

CUC executive director Alan Fletcher has yet to respond to Saipan Tribune for comments on these allegations.

Dela Cruz is also puzzled why the government, through the Public Works Department, did not realize an estimated up to 70 percent savings for using LED bulbs for public streetlights.

“Using ARRA monies, we installed a lot of these LEDs a year ago. But we never realized that 60- to 70-percent efficiency,” he said.

House Public Utilities Committee chair Rep. Larry Guerrero also lambasted CUC for what he described as “schemes” within the organization. He specifically cited the agency’s continued hiring, accusing it of losing its sense of priority for its customers.

“CUC kicked out people [from the third floor of its Dandan office] so its management can enjoy the entire floor, equipped with a modern security system, a new bathroom for its executive director while allowing CUC to rent another space in Oleai,” said the lawmaker.

According to Guerrero, CUC—on several occasions—cited numerous “savings” it can generate from specific actions such as the buyout of the PMIC contract and other measures.

“But where are these savings going?” he asked, adding that there are other ways for CUC to raise its revenue requirements rather than hiking customers’ charges.

CUC earlier filed a collection lawsuit against the central government, public schools, and hospital to collect nearly $20 million in unpaid obligations. Guerrero said he was surprised when the Commonwealth Ports Authority, which also owes CUC, was excluded from the case.

“Fortunately, CPA may have struck a sweet deal with CUC because obviously, it was not part of the collection lawsuit,” Guerrero said.

Sen. Pete Reyes, who chairs the Senate Public Utilities Committee, said it is disturbing to know that CUC—despite promises of efficient service—remains nonresponsive to customers’ needs.

The lawmaker cited his two-hour experience in line to pay his monthly bill. Only two—out of four cashier’s windows—were open to accommodate the long line of customers, he said.

“We’re talking about revenue for CUC that could have been collected on that day,” he said.

A member of the public, Patrick Leon Guerrero, also aired his frustrations with CUC’s performance. He cited the unnecessary hiring of another attorney for CUC in addition to its current legal counsel, the agency’s continued neglect of local laws such as Public Law 18-19, and confusing information about the PMIC buyout, among other issues.

CPUC chair Joseph Guerrero assured the public that the commission is not taking the issues raised by the public lightly.

“Anytime we get public comments, we hear them and we don’t ignore them. Everything we hear, we discuss among ourselves and our consultant,” he said.

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