TRENTON - (October 19, 2020) - Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried and Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin were among a handful of elected officials who testified Monday before the NJ Senate Committee on Law & Public Safety regarding the utility failures, especially in regards to communications, at Optimum/Altice USA and JCP&L.
From TAPinto Hamilton/Robbinsville:
New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) President Joseph Fiordaliso testified that the "loss of power for any amount of time is too much" and that steps need to be taken to limit the impact of storms. He also noted that, of the utility companies that serve New Jerseyans, only one - Public Service Electric and Gas (PSE&G) -- is based in the state. Fiordaliso believes that the utilities did a better job with restoration after Isiais than in previous storms.
The BPU chief noted however that "the FCC has gutted local authority for cable and telecommunications oversight to only over customer service" adding that the majority of the complaints that the agency hears are relative to telecommunications and utilities.
Mayor Fried, who has been a vocal critic of the communications from JCP&L and Altice, echoed the sentiment saying that it is "a false narrative that communications is better. It is just as bad today as during Hurricane Irene."
"If they are not giving us misinformation, they are just outright lying to us. I can’t go back to my residents and tell them anything JCP&L has told me because it is more likely to be untrue than true," said Fried who recently filed suit against the company for poor response to Tropical Storm Isiais. He said that "year after year it's the same story." He implored the lawmakers to give municipalities the ability to change utility providers.
JCP&L President Jim Fakult said the company is working to "increase and improve more customer-specific information."
"I hope to get my mayors out of the business of having to get the business of getting of those calls," Fakult said "we are here to get better. We have made a lot of progress over the years," but he conceded that "we have more we can do."
Pressed on what changes have been made, Fakult said that they have capability on their trucks to help provide data to towns, so they can understand when the work is being done and when power restoration may be completed.
Martin focused on problems faced by Hamiltonians related to the reliability of Internet service provided by Altice, particularly at a time when school children are largely attending classes virtually. The mayor said that mayors "shouldn't be the complaint department" for providers.
"We can't afford for their education to take a step back because they can't get on the internet," said Martin. "This can't continue." He called the internet reliability issue a "systemic problem" faced by many towns across New Jersey.
Marilyn Davis, senior director of government affairs at Altice, said that the telecommunications provider has added capacity to their network and is monitoring the system. She said the company is seeking to alleviate complaint calls to the mayors by installing a "state-of-the-art phone system" for customers to contact them directly.
Davis noted that in the cases of outages caused by storm damage the Internet provided must oftentimes wait for the power lines to first be restored before they can reconnect the Internet.
In August, the Assembly Telecommunications and Utilities Committee held a similar hearing on storm response. During Monday's hearing, the same concerns and problems were echoed.
Sen. Linda M. Greenstein, who chaired the committee, said that the senators will continue to examine the problems of reliability and restoration to determine if BPU regulations are sufficient or if legislative action needs to be taken.
The transcription of Mayor Fried’s testimony is as follows:
“I had some prepared remarks, but I am going to be very brief. You will hear from all the mayors about the failures of both JCP&L and Optimum. My town is unique because it is divided between PSE&G and JCP&L, as well as Optimum and Verizon (FiOS). It really is a tale of the haves and have nots. I was Mayor during Hurricane Irene (2011) and it was so bad I filed a lawsuit against JCP&L. I made the mistake of settling that lawsuit. It was so bad during this last storm (Tropical Storm Isaias in August) that I have filed a lawsuit against them again … and this time I have no intention of settling. The idea that (JCP&L) has gotten better at communication is false. It’s a false narrative. They are just as bad today as they were during Irene. If they are not giving us misinformation, they are just outright lying to us. I can’t go back to my residents and tell them anything JCP&L has told me because it is more likely to be untrue than true. We have a generator exchange program in Robbinsville because I have to provide them for my residents because I have no idea when the power is going to come back on. Meanwhile, I watch PSE&G and they are incredible. It is like watching the Yankees play a Little League team. They give me great information and they tell me where they are going to be. Bad news doesn’t get any better, but they tell me who will be the last one on so I know where to send my generators. There is a reason why JCP&L is so bad at this, and why they don’t take us, or you (NJ Senate Committee), seriously. A $100 fine is a joke to a CEO who makes millions. He then comes back here and gives us lip service, but the truth is he will go back to his board knowing he is not going to do anything, and the BPU is going to give him a rate increase. They gave them a rate increase after Irene, then another after Sandy, then more after almost every other storm. So, their failures basically allow more money for their shareholders who are out of state (Ohio). They go back to the board room and laugh. Why wouldn’t they?
“It’s embarrassing. JCP&L sets up meetings with us and they never tell us the truth. Oftentimes, when they send out communications to our residents it is the wrong information. My office is flooded with calls every time there is a storm. If I am going to take those calls and be in the customer service business, fine (JCP&L and Optimum) and give us the money so we can be in that business as that customer service front arm. I open my firehouse every week so Optimum customers without service can get online to go to school and so parents can work remotely. It is impossible for us to keep up with their failures. If we don’t hold both of them accountable, they are going to leave these proceedings and nothing is ever going to get better. JCP&L couldn’t even set up a water and ice station. If I was their CEO, I would be doing an apology tour all across New Jersey. But, instead, they are going to ask BPU for another rate increase and they are probably going to get it. Thus, their failures will be rewarded again. When you look at Optimum, they are just as bad since they send their profits out of the country (France). The failures continue year after year. We don’t hold them accountable and we don’t give them serious fines. For mayors like myself, give us the ability to switch if we have another option.
"I’m begging you. Please help us. We can’t continue to be their complaint department. We need effective change.”