Mayors Testify At NJ Senate Committee On Law And Public Safety About Utility Company Problems

October 19, 2020 Updated at 7:44 pm with testimony from Holmdel Mayor Gregory Buontempo

TRENTON, NJ (MERCER)–Several New Jersey mayors testified in front of the NJ State Senate, Law and Public Safety Committee today about lack of response of restoring utilities after recent storms and other problems. The mayors expressed most dissatisfaction with Jersey Central Power and Light JCP&L, and Optimum-Altice USA.

The first two mayors called were Hamilton Township Mayor Jeff Martin and Robbinsville Mayor Dave Fried regarding the service of local utility companies.

In particular, Mayor Martin focused on the poor quality of service that Optimum/Altice USA has provided to Hamilton Township residents, specifically over the last several months. While understanding that strains have been put on phone, internet and cable services with such a high volume of residents working from home, the quality of customer service that residents have received is unacceptable. Mayor Martin stated that PSE&G, Public Service Electric and Gas is Hamilton’s electric utility.

Mayor Dave Fried expressed dissatisfaction with both JCP&L and Optimum/Altice USA with restoring service after recent storms and other problems. Full transcript from Mayor Dave Fried below.

Transcription of Mayor Dave Fried’s testimony before the NJ Senate Committee on Law and Public Safety. Monday, October 19, 2020.

“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 to 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.”   

Full transcript from Holmdel Mayor Gregory Buontempo from today’s hearing.

Thank you Chairwoman Greenstein and distinguished members of the Committee for this opportunity to come here, on behalf of the Township of Holmdel, and  share with you our significant concerns regarding service delivery and emergency response of JCP&L as it relates to Tropical Storm Isaias and power outages in general.

I come here today on behalf of Holmdel’s angry and frustrated residents who are outraged by the absence of communication, the slow response and the general lack of customer service received from JCP&L.  Following Tropical Storm Isaias, our community was severely impacted by service disruptions that lasted upwards of one week. These power outages not only interrupted our residents’ lives, but it also placed a strain on the Township’s first responders who had to respond to emergencies that resulted from the prolonged period without electricity. I can personally attest to numerous instances in which residents reached out to me directly for help with dire medical needs.  While this frustration was exacerbated by Tropical Storm Isaias, the problems with response have gone on for far longer.  Holmdel repeatedly faces long power outages, even when the weather is not as severe as the storm on August 3rd

I want to give you some specific examples from this last incident.

Holmdel is home to Bayshore Medical Center one of only five hospitals in all of Monmouth County.  In the midst of a pandemic their ability to provide services to patients is critical to managing the outbreak and reducing the spread of the disease.  Unfortunately, it took 8 hours to get the hospital’s power up and running.  The hospital was within two degrees of having a mandatory evacuation which would have been catastrophic!  Such a critical care facility should be a top priority of any restoration plan.

A second critical issue involved a cul-de-sac community in Holmdel, Allocco Drive.  This is a community with many elderly residents.  As a result of the storm a tree came down across the street completely blocking vehicular access in an out of the neighborhood.  If an emergency were to occur it would have been impossible for response vehicles to reach these residents.  In situations such as sudden cardiac arrest, two minutes can actually be the difference between life and death!   Despite numerous attempts for information, JCP&L was unable to tell us if the tree blocking access was entangled in live wires.  This left our residents stuck in their homes for days with no power, no air conditioning and no access to emergency medical services.  As the Township, we would have removed the tree ourselves, even though it is not our responsibility, in order to protect our residents.  However, we were unable to do so because of a lack of information.  As a last resort, our Police Department had to station an ATV on location in case anyone needed to be evacuated on an emergency basis.  This is simply unacceptable. 

My last example is a matter of common sense coordination.  On Sunday, August 9th, almost a full week after the storm, there were two trucks parked in the Southern portion of town.  One was a Verizon truck and one was from JCP&L.  They were not working on anything.  When approached, both parties said they were waiting for direction.  Eventually the Verizon truck left because no one from JCP&L was providing information.  I personally had to step in and manage the coordination, calling my personal Verizon connections to have them come back to the site.  Eventually services were restored to the residents in the area – almost a week after the storm.  The problem is that in this instance the crews were ready willing and able to work but did not get the direction that they need.  This shows that the issues are coming from JCP&L’s lack of a clear strategy.  While our government relations contact, Frank Luna, is always very responsive and available, it was apparent that even he was not provided the information that could have improved the situation.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the public safety concerns that we have with the response from JCP&, but in the interest of time, I am giving you these as examples of some of the issues we face. 

After the devastating impact of Superstorm Sandy, the Township believed that JCP&L was embarking upon infrastructure improvements to prevent prolonged power outages. Two years ago, in July 2018, the Reliability Plus Initiative was announced aimed at enhancing the reliability and resiliency of the JCP&L distribution system.  Yet Holmdel Township has not seen improvement in service. 

The Township is respectfully requesting that JCP&L provide a detailed action plan for how it can better prepare and respond to power outages.  Specific items that need to be addressed include:

  • Status of the Reliability Plus Initiative
  • Strategy to be implemented in order to prevent future outages
  • Pre-weather event deployment procedures
  • Details of the company’s deforestation plan
  • Improved communication plan to advise residents in a timely manner of the length of outages and where crews will be working
  • Rebates to our residents for lost food, similar to those offered to customers of other power companies
  • Rebates to residents for the installation of generators given the continued loss of power 

I want to stress that we are willing to work with JCP&L in order to ensure the safety and health of our residents.  As Mayor, I am pleased that the company moved its corporate headquarters to Bell Works in Holmdel.  I know that an effective plan is possible, and we are willing to do our part to make this happen.

On behalf of the residents of Holmdel and I thank you for your time and attention to this important matter.