By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Concerns are being voiced that the government is ending Abaco's supply of free gasoline prematurely given that Hurricane Dorian wiped out the island's payments system.
Algernon Cargill, pictured, the joint Dorian relief and redevelopment co-ordinator for Abaco, yesterday confirmed to Tribune Business that the government's provision of subsidised gasoline on the storm-ravaged island will end this week.
He argued that the move was justified, given that two Shell service stations in Dundas Town and Marsh Harbour have re-opened, while a Rubis facility is due to come back online this week in Treasure Cay.
However, several Abaco residents, speaking on condition of anonymity, slammed the move as premature given that the total wipe-out of financial services and banking on the island means remaining residents and businesses lack any means to pay for it.
They told this newspaper that the provision of tax-free, subsidised gasoline should continue for a further six to eight weeks to allow for the resumption of physical and electronic banking services.
Addressing these concerns, Mr Cargill said Commonwealth Bank was aiming to re-open at Maxwell's supermarket "very soon" as a temporary location. And the government planned to speak with Royal Bank of Canada, CIBC FirstCaribbean International Bank and Scotiabank this week to determine how quickly they will resume operations in Abaco.
He added that any residents encountering difficulties in paying for fuel should visit the government complex in Marsh Harbour where "special arrangements" would be made to assist them.
"Yes, the government has been subsidising fuel supplies to Abaco, and providing gasoline to motorists free - and also the emergency and essential services - since the hurricane," Mr Cargill replied, when contacted by Tribune Business.
"We now have two Shell service stations, one in Dundas Town and one in Marsh Harbour, that are now open to the public. A Rubis station is to re-open next week in Treasure Cay. Now the stations are back open the fuel subsidies will be discontinued as of next [this] week."
Mr Cargill did not specify how much the provision of free fuel post-Dorian has cost the Government, instead emphasising that the priority was to regain "a feeling of normalcy" on the island and enable the business community to start re-opening.
"We haven't focused on costs," he said. "Our concern has been restoring Abaco to a feeling of normalcy since the storm. Cost has not been the main focus. The main focus has been getting the business community to re-open in Abaco. The idea is to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible."
With fuel supplies resuming through traditional sources, Mr Cargill said the Government was now switching its attention to the same happening with food and water through established, traditional vendors.
"The intent is we want to restore normalcy as soon as possible," he added. "Until that happened, the Government provided free fuel to motorists. We want to ensure that residents have freedom, respect and dignity in the short-term."
Asked about concerns that subsidised fuel supplies were being ended too soon, Mr Cargill responded: "If there are residents having a difficulty paying, we encourage them to come and see us at the Government complex and we can make special arrangements."
This did not satisfy one well-known Abaconian who, speaking on condition of anonymity, said residents had no access to payment mechanisms of any kind because all bank branches and automated teller machines (ATMs) had been knocked out by Dorian. Electronic payments had also taken a hit as the electricity supply was out, along with most businesses and their card systems.
"I'm kind of lost why they should do this," they told Tribune Business. "I have no funds, and there are no banks. No banks means no cash. I could see this being done in six to eight weeks, but now they want to shut it down when people don't have money to buy fuel."
They added that the Government should have instead issued 20,000 gallons of fuel to each of Abaco's three main petroleum suppliers and ration supplies to 20 gallons per vehicle "until a bank or two opens and people get cash.
"If they got Commonwealth Bank situated, what about RBC, FirstCaribbean and Scotiabank," the source said. "There's no thought going into this again. People want to rebuild and get businesses going, but nobody has any cash to get anything going in terms of buying stuff. Where are they going to get the money from?
"I can understand another six to eight weeks that people might want to do this [free fuel supplies]. What happens when Maxwells opens back up? Will they stop the free delivery of canned goods?
"We have nothing. Marsh Harbour, it's like a zombie town; the walking dead. There's nothing there right now. I can see the time coming to get going, but at least for the next six weeks to two months they should be having fuel depots so people have free fuel. We don't have it."
Mr Cargill, meanwhile, indicated that restoring banking and financial services on Abaco is a high government priority given that the industry is vital to restoring commerce and the island's private sector as rapidly as possible in Dorian's wake.
"Commonwealth Bank will be re-opening at Maxwells very soon; it's strategising how to do it," he told Tribune Business. "The plan next week is to speak to Royal Bank of Canada, CIBC and Scotiabank as to when they will re-open their operations or secure temporary operations in Marsh Harbour. Maxwells has agreed they will definitely re-open in Abaco so are already committed to it."
Mr Cargill said the Government has continued to pay every Abaco and Grand Bahama-based employee even though they may have been displaced by Dorian and/or have no work to do.