By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government may be forced into giving Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) a further bail-out if too few of its 16,000 delinquent customers pay-off their arrears, a Cabinet minister warned yesterday.
Desmond Bannister, minister of works, told Tribune Business that businesses and households under COVID-19 related financial stress must “live up to their responsibilities” and be proactive in addressing their debt rather than simply hope BPL will not disconnect them.
Adding that he “expects Bahamians who can pay, will pay”, Mr Bannister reiterated that collecting on outstanding bills was “the only way BPL can survive” and continue to provide electricity to its customer base.
He also urged Bahamians to abandon the long-held belief that the government will always have an inexhaustible supply of fund to bail-out BPL financially, adding that any monies used were not Public Treasury’s but actually belonged to the taxpayer.
The minister, who has Cabinet responsibility for BPL, said it was unfair to expect customers in good standing to continue shouldering a financial burden - via their taxes - for other who could pay but chose not to, or simply ignored the arrears owed to the state-owned energy monopoly.
And Mr Bannister warned that the government may have to step in “to assist the utility” if too many persons either failed to address their debts or were forced to agree a payment plan, as opposed to paying their arrears off in full
Speaking after Tribune Business revealed that just 78, or less than one percent, of the 16,000 customers facing disconnection had agreed a payment plan with BPL to-date, the minister told this newspaper: “I think the Bahamian people are going to appreciate their responsibilities and live up to them.
“Once the understand BPL is open for business and ready to take payment, I think people will live up to their financial obligations. It’s the only way the utility can survive. I expect Bahamians who can pay will pay. I expect that will happen.
“When they cannot pay there’s an obligation upon them to make an arrangement with BPL. I think the Government has to see, just speaking from my perspective, that people who are in that group [facing disconnection] are sufficiently interested that they will go in and make that arrangement. That’s important for us to understand,” Mr Bannister continued.
“If you are subject to disconnection now that means you have not paid your bill for six months. The very least you can do is go in and make an arrangement with BPL. BPL has to continue to operate, has to continue to buy fuel, and continue to pay the salary of its employees. If you don’t have time to go in and make arrangements that says something else.”
BPL’s spokesperson, in an e-mailed response to Tribune Business inquiries, confirmed that just 78 clients had visited BPL and agreed payment plans across all three categories facing loss of their electricity services.
Disconnections have already begun for the 11,400 customers who were $500 or more in arrears, and 90 days past due, prior to April 1 and the full onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic plus associated lockdown. These are those who Mr Bannister was referring to as having not paid their bill for six months.
Some 362 were disconnected as of Friday, and time is running out for 4,600 delinquent BPL customers in the other two categories to settle their arrears or make a payment plan. These are persons $500 or more in arrears since April 1, plus those who were on the Government’s three-month COVID-19 bill deferral. Both groups have until July 28 to reach terms with BPL.
Mr Bannister, reassuring those businesses and households suffering genuine COVID-19 financial hardship, said BPL knows it “can’t get water out of a stone” if they are able to make out “a reasonable case”.
“By the same token, where people can pay they have a civic responsibility to pay,” he reiterated. “I cannot tell you the figures out of my head, but the financial situation at BPL from the time it has been incorporated is dire. BPL has to find a way to work with its customers, and they have to find a way to work with BPL.”
Asked whether the Government may have to provide further financial assistance to BPL, Mr Bannister said much depended on how many delinquent customers either came in to pay off their arrears.
“If large numbers of people seek to stay at home and don’t make payment arrangements the utility has no choice but to take such action as to protect the revenue of the company,” he told Tribune Business.
“If they come in, and large numbers of people seek to make arrangements, the Government may have to look at an agreement to assist the utility..... It’s a challenging situation. The challenge can be lessened if people step forward. Then we’ll know where we truly are, and people are.”
But, warning that continual BPL bail-outs by the Government made little sense, Mr Bannister added: “You and I are taxpayers. If you and I are paying our bills or trying our best to put something on it, it is patently offensive for me to go to the Ministry of Finance and ask for millions of dollars that you, I and Mr X, Y, Z are going to have to pay back through our taxes because someone cannot go down to BPL and make an arrangement to pay.
“I think BPL is giving all of us an opportunity to come in and to work the situation out. But they can’t work with you unless you go in and say: ‘I want you to work with me’. From BPL’s perspective, we need to ensure the company survives.
“It cannot be the perspective that the Government is the sole shareholder in BPL, and that it is going to continue to finance this company and everyone will get free electricity. It doesn’t make sense.”
Mr Bannister later voiced similar sentiments in the House of Assembly, saying: “The Ministry of Finance has already injected millions of dollars into BPL. People somehow think it’s the Government’s money. It’s all our money.”
Acknowledging that it was “critical” for persons to have energy, he added: “It is important for us to not sit there and simply let BPL disconnect.... I don’t want to see anybody not have power.”