By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The existence of a Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) ‘do not disconnect’ list threatens to undermine accountability and the concept of “one law for all”, a governance reformer warned yesterday.
Robert Myers, a principal with the Organisation for Responsible Governance (ORG), told Tribune Business that allowing members of the political elite to escape paying their energy bills set a poor leadership example and would encourage others to follow suit.
Emphasising that he and ORG were delighted to see BPL moving to “get it cleaned up”, Mr Myers said: “We’re happy to see Minister Bannister and BPL dealing with the issue, as opposed to sweeping it under the rug.
“It’s just another indication that we seem to be heading in the right direction as opposed to the wrong direction. It doesn’t show any accountability at all. If we’re not going to have accountability at the top, how do we expect to get any in the Ministries or civil service, period? They’ve [politicians] got to lead by example.”
The Tribune reported yesterday how BPL has given politicians and senior officials just seven days to pay what Desmond Bannister, minister of works, described as “outrageous” outstanding bills as high as $50,000.
Many Bahamians, especially the 5,000 customers said to be disconnected by BPL at any one time, are likely to be furious at the ‘double standards’ exposed by the revelations.
While they can be cut-off by BPL for owing as little as $200, members of the political elite - and their relatives, cronies and political supporters - have been allowed to rack up much higher debts, and over long periods of time, without consequence.
Many observers are likely to regard the situation as further evidence of members of the political class living off the backs of the Bahamian people, given that both businesses and households are effectively having to subsidise the ‘free’ electricity being granted to them.
The situation has also exacerbated BPL’s long-standing accounts receivables problem, which it has inherited from its Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC) parent. BEC’s 2014 accounts, obtained by Tribune Business last year, revealed that the energy monopoly was owed a net $82.379 million by the private sector, and $37.357 million by government entities.
That represented almost $120 million in receivables owed to BEC, a situation unlikely to have improved much over the past three years. The Corporation had also taken a $96.324 million provision for private sector debts it was unlikely to recover, and had been ‘netting off’ what the Government owes against unpaid taxes due on its fuel imports.
One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tribune Business yesterday that BPL’s ‘do not disconnect’ list included the likes of schools; government ministries, departments and agencies; and churches as well as individual politicians and senior officials.
They added that the sum owed amounted to “millions of dollars”, and warned: “It’s going to be a backlash. There’s a lot of institutions on that list; schools and government buildings. No one’s been paying their bills for quite some time.
“What happens when the kids go to school, and there are no lights because it’s been disconnected? It may not be the political win that Minnis had in mind.”
Mr Myers, meanwhile, told Tribune Business that there needed to be “one law for all” as opposed to ‘special treatment’ for persons with the right connections.
“All Cabinet Ministers and people that hold office in any of these ministries, we’ve all got to meet our obligations otherwise you start to erode levels of accountability,” he warned. ‘If the top is doing it, the bottom will, too.”
Mr Myers said a similar situation had arisen at Bank of the Bahamas, the troubled Government-owned bank, where politically exposed persons (PEPs) being allowed to get away without paying their loans had been a key factor in the institution’s near-collapse.
“Everyone has got to live within their means,” he added. “BPL saying it’s given them seven days’ notice; I think the message is clear. BPL is no longer going to extend that kind of courtesy, which is a good thing.
“There’s one law for all, or there’s no law. That should be the way they deal with it.”