WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON UPDATE: Bannister advises BPL to cease disconnections – CLICK HERE
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) last night confirmed it will resume disconnecting delinquent consumers as of today following a week-long pause amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Quincy Parker, the state-owned energy monopoly’s spokesperson, confirmed that BPL’s previous statement on the April 1 disconnection resumption “stands”. He added: “Should our policy position change, we’ll advise immediately.”
The move is likely to be greeted with anger and outrage by many Bahamians, especially those individuals and businesses who have either lost their jobs, suffered income and hours reductions, or been forced to shut down as a result of the government’s national lockdown to counter the virus’s spread.
Philip Davis, the opposition’s leader, last night said his party was “deeply concerned” about BPL resuming disconnections of non-paying customers at a time when many Bahamians were suffering from the loss of jobs and/or income.
Arguing that the move breached the Special Provisions Orders 3.1, released yesterday as part of the government’s Emergency Powers Orders regulations, Mr Davis added: “This decision could not have come at a worse time when massive increases in jobs losses, and applications for social assistance and unemployment insurance benefits, are with us.
“Such a decision is also no in keeping with the spirit of state assistance and subventions to both companies and workers.” The opposition leader also argued that disconnections “fly in the face” of the government’s pledge to put health and sanitary measures first in the COVID-19 fight, as power was essential for the provision of water.
However, the week-long blanket disconnection halt is likely to have been exploited by some who can still afford to pay their bill. Such a blanket disconnection waiver benefits those who do not need it as well as those who do.
BPL’s shift comes after Desmond Bannister, minister of works, told Tribune Business on Monday that BPL faced “a real challenge” to continue the disconnection suspension because of its cash-strapped position.
He revealed that the utility had suffered a “frightening” multi-million dollar March revenue drop that threatens the energy provider’s very existence if it continues.
Customer payments on their March electricity bills were “lower than they have ever been for the past five years” as the tourism shutdown, coupled with the COVID-19 lockdown, leaves thousands of businesses and households struggling to meet their obligations.
Declining to give either a dollar or percentage figure for the decline, Mr Bannister said the Government was now faced with “making some policy decisions” with regard to BPL although he declined to detail what those options might be.
“That’s a challenge. It’s a real challenge. The Government is going to have to look at it from a policy perspective,” Mr Bannister responded, when asked by Tribune Business if BPL will be able to maintain its disconnection suspension beyond yesterday.
“BPL’s collections this month are down; lower than it’s been for any of the past five years for March. Given the precarious state of the corporation, it cannot continue to operate, cannot continue to exist, in that circumstance.
“The Government is going to have to take some policy decisions with respect to BPL. The BPL Board will have to make some decisions, and the Government is going to have to guide them and see how it can assist from a policy point of view.”
Confirming that he had been presented with BPL’s March 2020 revenue and collection figures on Friday, Mr Bannister declined to detail precisely how much they were off compared to prior years. “I can tell you millions. I won’t tell you the figure. It’s by millions,” he added. “It would not be fair to BPL to give a figure, but it’s down by millions and that’s frightening.
“The corporation still has to exist, employees have to be paid, and that’s going to be a real challenge if we continue the way we are. It’s very difficult, and what happened this month cannot continue.”
The seemingly-sharp drop in BPL’s revenues is not unexpected given that the Bahamian economy has largely ground to a halt, due to a combination of the tourism industry shutdown and resulting mass lay-offs together with the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown that has closed many other sectors.
This will only have served to exacerbate the state-owned energy monopoly’s monthly accounts receivables, which measure the debts owed to it by customers, as these traditionally stand at between $90m to $100m.
Mr Bannister, though, said BPL’s problems were being made worse by the failure of customers who can pay not doing so. “If we are in a circumstance where only people unable to pay don’t pay, the losses would not be so great,” he added.
Meanwhile, BPL said it had moved to address challenges experienced by its customers in logging on to its online portal to pay their bills. It added that it had updated its systems in December 2019 to provide greater security, and customers were now required to have a user name and password as well as a PIN number.
It added that many had either forgotten their PINs or never used the online system, requiring these to be reset to enable persons to log-in. One irate BPL customer told Tribune Business yesterday: “I read your article yesterday and my immediate reaction was to go online, as I had not received my bill from BPL for March and wanted to pay.
The start of the problems. BPL, in their wisdom, have redesigned the website and it is impossible to pay on one’s personal webpage. Moreover it does not recognise any of the information previously entered on the old payment page, and now is asking for a non-existent PIN number.
“Also, the site stated that a bill had been sent out on March 27 but this is not true. I have been receiving electronic bills and paying them on time for at least three years without problem. If someone competent was in charge this could have been avoided. Not the case.”