EDITORIAL – The utility of Cayman’s new utilities commission

lime-cable-tower-cayman.jpgPound for pound, it could become the busiest public office in the Cayman Islands.
Four of Cayman’s regulatory authorities may soon be put under one roof, through the merger of independent bodies that oversee the country’s electricity, fuel, telecommunications and water providers.

According to Information and Communications Technology Authority Managing Director Alee Fa’amoe, key responsibilities will likely include cost control, customer complaints and the long-term provision of efficient utility services for Cayman’s future development.

Given the prevailing status of our country’s infrastructure, we hope the new “Public Utilities Commission” retains all of its existing telephone numbers, lest busy signals further enrage the inevitable hordes of irritated callers.

That being said, the quantity of phone numbers may have little bearing on the chances of a consumer’s call actually being received. The same goes for emails and online forms.

That’s because when Cayman’s telephone and data networks go down — as we witnessed yet again this Tuesday — nobody gets through to anybody.

The shortcomings in Cayman’s telecom services also apply to electricity, fuel and water, particularly in regard to the capacity of our country’s infrastructure to accommodate (much less facilitate) significant future growth.

Unreliable Internet, intermittent electricity, expensive fuel, an inadequate water system … Those ingredients don’t exactly add up to a “no-fail” recipe for runaway economic success.

We, of course, realize that Cayman’s small population and insular geography pose challenges that circumscribe the potential performance and cost-effectiveness of our service providers, according to efficiencies of scale and laws of distance.

There exists, however, much room for improvement. Why, for example, does our wealthy country — despite our aspirations toward “First Worldliness” — lack a centralized sewerage system that covers our most populous island, or even, as far as we’re aware, a plan to install such a system? If Grand Cayman’s population is going to surge (so our country can capitalize on economic opportunities afforded by entities such as Dart, Health City and others), septic tanks and deep-injection wells simply aren’t going to cut it.

The conglomeration of the four regulators will most likely have little bearing on those bigger questions we face. The immediate reason for the Public Utilities Commission merger seems to be a far more modest one: to save the government $250,000 per year, according to the EY Report (also styled “Project Future”).

While any government savings are welcome, that $250,000 is a relative drop in the bucket compared to our public sector budget, which has surpassed $880 million per year.

Like the proposed merger of Cayman’s complaints commissioner and information commissioner’s office (which, by the way, don’t have a single permanent commissioner between them …. Both are still “acting,” as is Cayman’s other watchdog body, the auditor general), the creation of the singular Public Utilities Commission represents the lowest of the lowest-hanging fruit in the EY Report. Savings from those two initiatives don’t even amount to rounding errors, compared to the report’s significant proposals such as outsourcing public sector medical operations, divesting surplus public property and privatizing certain government agencies.

Much of that was rejected out-of-hand by the Progressives government, which had commissioned the report. In hindsight, it appears the criteria for consideration of specific proposals consisted of: a) No civil servant loses a job; b) No civil servant experiences a potential inconvenience; and c) No single person from the community raises an objection.

Thus, the Public Utilities Commission.