San Miguel Corp suspends penalties on unpaid ALECO bills

Locked in an increasingly tense resistance from certain consumer groups that has hampered its taking over of operations of the debt-ridden Albay Electric Cooperative (Aleco), the San Miguel Corp. has indefinitely suspended penalties on unpaid consumers’ electric bills.

The SMC took over Aleco’s management and operation as a concessioner last Jan. 8 after winning in a bid for concession of the country's first electric cooperatve to privatize.

Aleco, which has more than 200,000 consumers, is saddled with close to P4 billion debts and recently, a labor problem.

SMC, through its newly created subsidiary Albay Power and Energy Corp. (APEC), claimed it has failed to take over Aleco completely, making it unable to handle its meter reading, distribution of electric bills and collection functions.

Consumers complained that they are already saddled by months of undelivered electric bills starting as early as September last year due to the labor strike staged by the Aleco Labor and Employees Union.

They feared that they would be obliged to settle later their accumulated electric bills in full or face disconnection.

According to Magen Del Rosario, a member of the Aleco interim board created in 2011 that formulated the privatization, SMC has only the control so far on its engineering aspect since its final physical takeover on Jan. 8.

It is awaiting the Department of Labor’s resolution of the issue of alleged union busting and illegal dismissal raised by the Aleo backed by the Aleco Multi-Sectoroal Stakeholders Organization.

The decision is scheduled to be given on Feb. 14.

Del Rosario said the new Aleco management, however, has decided to suspend indefinitely the two-percent penalty that the old Aleco management had imposed on late payments on electric bills.

Failure to settle the electric bill a week after its receipt, the consumers would have to settle it with the two-percent interest computed on a monthly basis.

A second unpaid bill would automatically be a cause for disconnection, if not settled in 48 hours upon issuance of the disconnection notice.

On Jan. 14, Aleco striking employees lifted their strikes after DOLE issued a return-to-work order with the resolution expected to be released on Feb. 14.

Last week, however, employees resumed their strike after the SMC allegedly failed to hire back some 100 striking employees to their original duties and withheld their salaries.

APEC-designated General Manager Allan Marcha could not be contacted for comment but a source said SMC has already designated certain banks and establishments to receive electric bill payments.

Generoso Butial of Tabaco City said he has yet to receive his electric bills and that his efforts to check his bills with Aleco proved futile.

Last week, Albay Gov. Joey Sarte Salceda appealed to critics of the Aleco privatization to give SMC the chance to prove its worth in rehabilitating Aleco.

He said SMC will certainly not fail Albayanos, saying SMC will do its best to make the Aleco privatization a showcase, adding that the business sector and giant power firms are watching over its development.

Salceda said ailing electric cooperatives are also closely monitoring Aleco’s privatization as its success may entice them to follow.

Reports said one of the four electric cooperatives in Camarines Sur that has also been suffering from mismanagement and bankruptcy has already signified interest to privatize.

SMC was the lone bidder in acquiring Aleco after four others – including Aboitiz group, Meralco, and the Lopez group -- withdrew their interest during the pre-bidding conference.

Early reports said SMC had set aside P350 million to pay for retiring Aleco employees and those who will be terminated.

The report said SMC has already completed its plantilla list to be filled up by newly recruited employees and officials.

Marred by a high systems loss of 24 percent, the reported graft-ridden and mismanaged Aleco has been run during the past 30 years by three area district managers appointed by the board of directors with the concurrence of the National Electrification Administration.

A highly reliable source said the failed Aleco had in its employ meter readers who were at the same time doing collection duties.

Cases of rampant misappropriation of collections had been reported, linking insiders in the racket perpetrated by the gang dubbed as the Aleco 4.

The Aleco operation is divided among the three districts of Albay known as the Aleco I, Aleco II and Aleco III.

Many consumers, however, are offended as the new management reportedly asked them to produce official receipts for alleged past unpaid bills that cannot be found in the final Aleco record.(PNA) CTB/FGS/MU/CBD/PJN
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