‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH’: Council wages all-out-war vs PECO

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ILOILO City Councilors R Leone Gerochi (left) and Joshua Alim spar over a resolution opposing the renewal of Panay Electric Co.’s congressional franchise during the City Council’s regular session, Nov. 14, 2017 at the City Hall. (Ricky D. Alejo)

THE Sangguniang Panlungsod (SP) of Iloilo does not want another 25 years of service by Panay Electric Co. (PECO) the sole power distributor in the city.

But before the body arrived in a “united” opposition to PECO’s application to renew its franchise before the House Committee on Legislative Franchises, the councilors were locked in a heated debate for more than an hour during their regular session, Nov 14, 2017.

The debate, which was punctuated by in-between power outages and some booing from the crowd, tackled the intricacies of the issue and how important that the council’s every move against the power utility firm should be well-planned.

“It is better that instead of us fighting each other, let’s just agree. What is important is there is opposition. Later on, whatever happens, I hope everything turns out well,” said Councilor R Leone Gerochi, committee on public utilities chairperson.

The councilors, except for Majority Floor Leader Eduardo Peñaredondo who abstained, voted in favor of the resolution “vehemently opposing the renewal of franchise of Panay Electric Company, and let the national government takeover until such time that another qualified distribution utility may come in”.

The approved resolution is a revised version of Gerochi’s resolution strongly opposing the renewal of PECO’s 25-year franchise, which is set to expire in 2019, based on the following concerns: -PECO’s lack of courtesy to its host LGU when it did not notify, and furnish the city a copy of its renewal of franchise application; -PECO’s history of overcharging its customers based on cases filed by cause-oriented groups such as Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC); -PECO’s remaining balance from the P631 million overcharged fees, which the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) ordered it refunded to its consumers; -PECO’s poor customer service, erroneous and inconsistent meter readings, among others complaints; and -PECO’s lack of transparency in its operations. “My opposition is based on the fact that I don’t want the status quo, and as it appears, PECO wants to renew its franchise for another 25 years and to maintain the status quo. Meaning to say, no changes, no reforms, no nothing,” Gerochi stressed. But as a realist that he is, Gerochi qualified in the resolution that if the franchise is renewed despite their opposition, the city must have the power to impose conditions for the protection of consumers.

Not a newbie in the fight against PECO, the clause is Gerochi’s “Plan B” in case the Congress will rule in favor of PECO, which has been monopolizing the power distribution in the city since 1921.

In a statement Mikel Afzelius, PECO corporate communications officer, said they will always be a partner of the city government for the progress of Iloilo City. “We would always want to work together with the city council for the progress of Iloilo City despite the resolution passed.

With regards to a government takeover, there are technicalities and laws involved in that and so far the national government has not given any intentions for a takeover.

We will continue to work on our projects and programs for the improvement of our services and progress of the city,” Afzelius said.

 

ALL-OUT FIGHT

But Councilor Joshua Alim, backed by fellow oppositionist Councilor Plaridel Nava, insisted that the council should not give the Congress room to decide against the city, thus Gerochi’s “rider clause” in the resolution must be deleted.

“PECO is a private business imbued with public interest. The franchise given to PECO for 25 years is only a privilege granted by the government, not their rights. When we say privilege, it can be taken out anytime by the government,” Alim stressed.

“The prime consideration they were granted franchise is because of convenience and comfort of the people. The moment you cause discomfort and inconvenience to the people, certainly that would be a ground for the revocation of their franchise,” Alim added.

He said the city government should not be afraid of what will happen in case PECO’s franchise will be revoked as there are remedies set to address these conditions.

“The national government can always take over, and during the transition period, the government can always regulate, can open the area to any power player,” Alim said. “Why worry? We are just making people worried more.”

 

‘ARE WE REAdY?’

Peñaredondo, the lone wolf who did not join the pack, reasoned that his abstention to the resolution is based on the lack of preparation by the city in case the Congress denies PECO’s franchise renewal.

“Supposed the franchise of PECO will be stopped? Who will take over? We will all be prejudiced. Wala ta suga, wala ta kuryente. What is our alternative?” the veteran councilor said.

Peñaredondo opined that the resolution was hastily prepared. Mayor Jose Espinosa III, on his part, wanted assurance that the operations and services in the metro will not be affected in case PECO loses its congressional franchise.

“My concern is continuity of service for our constituents. My stand is for businesses and for our people.

Whoever can provide better services and can assure good services, that will be our stand,” Espinosa said.

While the government can take over PECO, Espinosa said that there should be due process. He also sounded ambivalent whether or not the government can really take over PECO, especially on the matters of finances.

“Government is okay to take over, but what government, what division of the government, Office of the President, office of the ERB (the old name of the Energy Regulatory Commission)?” the mayor asked.

“For example, if the PECO will sell (its properties) for P50 million, we need to have P50 million, if P100M, we should have P100M, if P1 billion, the government must have P1B,” the mayor said, adding that details of takeover must be established first.

 

HOPE

Despite the differing opinions and the looming public hearing on PECO’s franchise on Nov. 22, 2017 at the House, the city councilors are hopeful that their stand will be heard by the lawmakers.

While Iloilo City Rep. Jerry Trenas is expected to give voice to Iloilo City residents, the solon is forced to abstain from PECO issues because his law firm is PECO’s counsel.

“Although he does not speak in behalf of us because rule prohibits him to do so, the least we can pray for is he will not act against us,” Gerochi said.

With the Senate and Congress larger and more powerful than the City Council, Gerochi is rooting his hope to the prudence, integrity, and discernment of the lawmakers.

“If we do not have hope on these issues, we will never advocate for this. So I believe that Congress will decide what is best for Iloilo City,” Gerochi said.

Alim said he is also aware that the franchise hearing is out of the City Council’s control. But he stressed that “The point is we made a stand for our constituents.

Whatever the Congress decision is, they will be answerable to us. What is also important is they conduct a hearing in Iloilo City so the public, PECO consumers, can air their concerns.”

The SP will forward the resolution to the Office of Rep. Franz Alvarez, House Committee on Legislative Franchises chair. The councilors will also attend the Nov 22, 2017 committee hearing in the House of Representatives.



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