By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamas Power & Light’s (BPL) March revenues have slumped by almost one-third year-over-year, a Cabinet minister revealed yesterday, as it halted disconnections for the lockdown’s duration.
Desmond Bannister, pictured, minister of works, told Tribune Business that the state-owned energy monopoly had suffered a $13m shortfall in customer payments last month compared to March 2019 as the business closures and job losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic started to bite.
Addressing yesterday’s confusion surrounding whether BPL would continue its suspension disconnection beyond March 31, Mr Bannister said the utility needed to both make it easier for consumers to pay bills and improve its communications strategy.
BPL’s Blue Hill Road headquarters was yesterday besieged by customers seeking to become current with their accounts, with the lines made longer by COVID-19-related social distancing. Mr Bannister suggested that it was also an indication that some who could meet their obligations had taken advantage of the previous week-long suspension to avoid doing so.
Calling on all households and businesses to “be responsible” with their monthly electricity bill, especially those who can still afford to pay, the minister added that the government planned to deploy several “strategies” through the Department of Social Services to help persons who have lost their jobs and incomes meet their obligations.
“Last year this time, BPL would have collected a little over $40m for March,” Mr Bannister told Tribune Business. “This year, they’ve collected $27m. The significance of that is that the government is going to have to find a way to make up some of the shortfall at BPL.
“When you look at the social responsibility we have as a government, we cannot continue to let these challenges go on from month-to-month. We all have to play our part in being responsible. Everyone who can pay should ensure they pay. That’s critical, and BPL should make it easier for them to pay.”
The figures unveiled by Mr Bannister show BPL’s year-over-year revenue collections are down 32.5 percent for March, which is hardly surprising given the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fall-out. His reference to making it “easier to pay” refers to the complaints from numerous customers that upgrades to the utility’s website left them unable to log-in and pay their bills online.
Confirming that BPL has now suspended disconnections until the COVID-19 emergency is over, which will be April 8 at the earliest, Mr Bannister acknowledged: “There are some challenges we have to deal with, and we have to deal with them head on; fairly and squarely.
“BPL has to improve their online portal so people can pay efficiently. They have to improve that, and they have to improve their communications strategy. It’s important we make it easier for people to pay their bills. These are critical duties we have to perform.”
Mr Bannister said he had also informed BPL that it needed to align its billing cycle with customer pay-days, which typically fall at the end of most months. And he suggested that the long customer lines at BPL’s head office yesterday indicated that the now-suspended disconnection restart had motivated some who exploited this waiver - and have the ability to pay - to race to become current.
“We see evidence of that,” he added. “We saw anecdotal evidence of that this morning in the sense there were very long lines at BPL. Some people clearly have the money to pay. Others may have had the money to pay, but they may have had challenges going online or not be a person who uses the Internet.
“We have to make it easier for people to pay, and take away a lot of the stress they are feeling nowadays. It’s very interesting. Sebas [Bastian, the Island Luck owner], sent me information today that his system permits people to pay their utility bills. We need to continue to improve, and BPL has to continue to improve, and when we run into challenges like this they’re going to improve from it and learn from it.”
Still, Mr Bannister reiterated that electricity bills cannot be wished away. “They accumulate, and I think it’s important for all of us to appreciate they’re not going to go away,” he told Tribune Business. “There’s no magic in getting bills to go away. They have to be paid at some stage.
“The Bahamian consumer cannot be responsible for paying Desmond Bannister’s bills or any other consumer’s bills. It cannot be through the Government taking on responsibility on a long-term basis for consumer bills and not expecting them to be paid. That’s the taxpayer’s money, your money. All of us have to be responsible.”
The minister added that the Government had instructed BPL to be lenient with consumers who had genuinely fallen on “hard times” as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and were unable to pay their light bill.
“It’s important for them to communicate with BPL,” he said of those persons. “There are some social services strategies that the Government is seeking to unveil, and the Department of Social Services will inform the public about that and provide assistance in certain circumstances.”