Row over delinquent BPL accounts erupts in Senate

Row over delinquent BPL accounts erupts in Senate
Dr. Michael Darville.

FNM Senator Jamal Moss said yesterday that while the opposition has accused the government of failing to bring relief to the 5,000-plus delinquent Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) customers, there were 12,000 customers without power nearly two years after the Christie administration introduced value-added tax (VAT).

The claim fueled a brief, but heated spat in the Senate between Moss and PLP Senator Dr. Michael Darville, who said the claim was “bogus” and “misleading.”

“The former administration talks about how this government has up to 5,000 people living in the dark because of the high electricity bills and what is now being done is nothing more than a political gimmick, show, and the list goes on,” Moss said during debate in the Senate on the Valued-Added Tax (Amendment No. 2) Bill, 2018.

“But, if I recall back in 2016, after they slapped the VAT on the average Bahamian people with no types of relief in place or insight, the same bunch had over 12,000 Bahamians living in darkness — all because you intentionally failed to give the Bahamian people the much-needed relief they needed to keep the lights on.”

In October, 2016 — two weeks after Hurricane Matthew crippled New Providence’s electrical grid — then BPL CEO Pamela Hill said despite efforts to restore supply following the storm there were “more than 12,000 New Providence customers without power”.

At the time, Hill said BPL had enlisted it’s local and international partners to work “more efficiently to get the power back on to those customers who lost supply after Hurricane Matthew.”

Responding to Moss on a point of order, Darville said, “It [does not] exist and until he can find evidence of the 12,000 people left in darkness by the Progressive Liberal Party, he should bring it to this place.

Moss said as a “senator who represents the government, I come with facts”.

He referenced a December 22, 2016 article in The Tribune, in which Department of Statistics Statistician Cypreanna Winters, during the release of the Labour Force Survey, was quoted as saying, “Approximately 10 per cent of households where the main source of lighting was electricity had their power disconnected due to nonpayment of their bills”.

The survey provided data on labour force during the reference period of October 24-30, 2016 — less than three weeks after the Category 4 storm.

Darville, who sat in the Christie Cabinet as minister for Grand Bahama, said while there were customers off the grid due to delinquency, The Tribune article Moss referenced was not “reflective to really what was happening at BPL at the time”.

Moss continued, “As I said, in The Tribune article [dated] December 2016, 12,000 Bahamians’ lights were off. They also quoted the former deputy prime minister, the minister responsible for BPL, who is also your leader, by saying and I quote, that ‘the government was working with Bahamas Power and Light to write off many of the company’s delinquent accounts’.”

Davis made the statement in June 2016.

Davis said at the time he had been informed that around 3,000 BPL customers were without power due to delinquency.

When Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced the launch of a retooled BPL reconnection program in January, 2018, he said around 3,000 BPL customers were off the grid for non-payment

Last month, Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister revealed that 5,412 customers were without power for non-payment.

The minister said despite reconnection exercises, at any given time, there are between 4,000 and 6,000 Bahamians without power.

Addressing Darville, Moss said, “The article continued on by saying that the CEO (Hill) — who ya’ll brought in; the now senators; the PLP; the former government — who they hired, spoke out against them and she reiterated that the BPL officials were not in any talks with the government over forgiveness or write off programs. But again, the article simply says 12,000.”

Darville insisted the statement was incorrect.

President on the Senate Katherine Forbes-Smith eventually intervened and said the figure referenced by Moss was gleaned from the article “and we will accept that and move on”.

The VAT amendment bill seeks to raise the VAT exemption ceiling on power bills from $200 or less to $300 or less from November 1, 2018 to July 1, 2019.

More than 64,000 BPL customers stand to benefit from the exemption increase, according to the government.

The opposition has said the bill “smacks of political gimmickry” and does not address the fundamental issue of bringing down the cost of power in The Bahamas.