This week in the News by Elcott Coleby…

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THIS WEEK IN THE BAHAMAS (20– 24 JULY 2015)

Deputy Director at BIS Elcott Coleby.
Deputy Director at BIS Elcott Coleby.
COMMENTARY BY ELCOTT COLEBY

Bahamas Supreme Court rejects Baha Mar’s Delaware chapter 11 application
In a ruling by Justice Ian Winder on Wednesday of this week, The Bahamas Supreme Court Denied Baha Mar’s Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Recognition Petition. This paves the way for the Supreme Court to appoint a provisional liquidator on the 31st July 2015 should the negotiating parties fail to reach an out of court settlement.

“We welcome today’s decision by The Bahamas Supreme Court to deny Baha Mar’s application for recognition of its American Chapter 11 Bankruptcy of June 29, 2015” said the Bahamas government in a press release issued the day of the ruling.

“In doing so, the Supreme Court vindicated the Government’s position, indicating it will provide the detailed reasoning for its ruling within 14 days.

“Our Government has argued firmly that a Bahamian Court, supervising the work of an independent liquidator, is best suited to oversee the restructuring, completion and opening of the resort should Baha Mar, China Construction and Exim Bank be unable to reach an out of court agreement.”

The Bahamas government reiterated that the prompt opening of the resort under private ownership and operation remains its primary objective.

“Our objectives continue to be the prompt completion and successful opening of the Baha Mar project. We are confident today’s decision will encourage all parties to focus on these goals. It is a matter of the greatest national importance for the resort to open as soon as possible, under private ownership and operation.”

In related news, the government proposed in a filed affidavit the appointment of three accountants in the employ of Price-waterhouseCoopers as provisional liquidators. They are Prince Rahming, Gowon Bowe and Garth Calow.

It was also reported in the media on Friday that lawyers for the developer, Sarkis Izmirlian, told the bankruptcy court in Delaware at a ten minute Thursday hearing that the developer is prepared to commit as much as $200 million to jumpstart the project. The terms were not released.

In a late news development, the government issued a press release Friday evening to confirm that a Bahamian delegation led by the Attorney General was traveling to China to resume talks with the other principals.

This week in Parliament
The House of Assembly met on Wednesday, 22nd July 2015 at 10am and following is a brief summary of the House proceedings.

Bahamas Prime Minister the Rt. Hon. Perry G. Christie provided the House with an update on the Hawksbill Creek Grand Bahama (Deep Water Harbour and Industrial Area) (Extension of Tax Exemption Period) Act, 1993. He reported that the 1993 Act which provides for the exemption of specific taxes for twenty-two years comes to an end on 4th August 2015 and will be extended for a additional six months to provide for “further consultations and negotiations” with stakeholders on the economic ramifications of any adjustments to this existing tax regime.

“Due to the in depth and comprehensive nature of the study and the report of the Committee, which would also require further consultation and negotiations with stakeholders and the Grand Bahama community, more time is clearly needed to complete this vital exercise” said the Prime Minister.

According to Mr. Christie, the tax concessions that are available to port licencees in Freeport that are the subject of active review include the following:

No real property tax or real property levy;
No personal property tax and no capital levies or taxes on capital gains or capital appreciation; and
No taxes of any kind on the earnings of the Port Authority or the earnings of its licensees.

The Prime Minister indicated that the State Minister for Finance will table an amended Freeport Act to enable the extension of the tax concessions for another six months.

Deputy Prime Minister Hon. Philip Brave Davis presented the House with an update on Urban Renewal 2.0 Small Homes Program and connected issues. He told House members that to date over 600 homes have been repaired under the Urban Renewal small homes repair program over the last three years. Further, some 400 contractors and over 1,000 tradesmen have been employed in this program as carpenters, plumbers, masons and tile layers. Since on average, five persons live in each home, over 3,000 Bahamians have been positively impacted by this program.

The Deputy Prime Minister went on to summarize the results of an independent report he commissioned by J.D. Chisolm, Quantity Surveyor and Anthony Farrington, Construction Engineer. He told the House that since the Auditor General raised the question of “value for money” in his audit report, a comment that “troubled” him, it was his duty to determine definitively if in fact the government received value for money given the scope of work connected to the contracted sums.

The independent investigation included a sample size of 80 houses proportionally selected across the participating constituencies. It also included the 12 houses cited in the Auditor General’s report as being incomplete, or raised the “value for money” question.

The conclusion was that for the monies expended, the government did receive value for money, the workmanship was good to excellent and in several cases, the houses identified in the Auditor General’s report were incorrectly identified. The Deputy Prime Minister tabled the independent report prepared by the construction experts and is now a matter of public record.

Labour Minister the Hon. Shane Gibson notified the House that acting on the recommendation of the National Tripartite Council and after consultations with international organizations such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the government of The Bahamas has agreed to increase the minimum wage of The Bahamas from $150.00 per week to $210.00 per week effective the 15th August 2015; this is a 40% increase.

State Minister for Finance the Hon. Michael Halkitis introduced and read for the first time, an act of Parliament to extend for a period of six months, certain tax exemptions under an agreement called the Hawksbill Creek Agreement. Halkitis also introduced the FATCA Act, pursuant to an agreement signed between the governments of The Bahamas and the United States in 2014. The Foreign Accounts Tax Compliance Agreement (FATCA) Bill provides the legal mechanism to enforce the agreement. The Act is enforceable for the period the FATCA agreement is valid. Failure to comply with FATCA will result in a 30% withholding by the US government on all international financial transactions involving commercial entities registered or persons resident in the United States.

Minister Gibson, who has responsibility for the National Insurance Board, updated the House on the amendments to the Drug Prescription Plan. Specifically, the government added diseases for coverage by the plan and allocated an additional $4.5 million in funding over the next eighteen months ahead of the Plan’s full integration into the National Health Insurance plan.

The newly added diseases were Asthma related Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Dementia, Coronary Heart Disease, and Cardiomyopathy. With a total of 64 new drug items being added to the Plan, the Plan’s new drug listing now stands at 217 medications and 13 medical supplies.

Mitchell: $200 emergency passport processing fee to fight corruption
“One of the things I do want to stress though in particular is one of the reasons that this fee has been implemented for emergencies is to try and eliminate any suggestion or attempt to offer money to people on the side to get this process advanced.”

The Foreign Affairs Minister revealed just one of the reasons for the contentious $200 emergency passport processing fee at a press conference held on Monday at the Passport Office to update the public on the status of the processing of what he described as a “deluge” of passport applications, numbering some 6,500 in New Providence alone and over 1,500 in Grand Bahama. Mitchell was hopeful however that by the electronic passport deadline of the 15th November, the backlog would be under control.

He also revealed that additional staff was transferred from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Passport Office to assist in expediting the high volume of applications.

Acting Chief Passport Officer Tucker announced a new shift system with the additional staff and confirmed that to date his office has collected over $24,000 in emergency processing fees.

On Tuesday of this week, the Ministry released a statement that the Ministry of Finance had approved funding for overtime including after hours, weekends and holidays.

The dedicated email address for persons interested in accessing emergency services is MOFACUSTOMERSERVICE@BAHAMAS.GOV.BS

BEC and PowerSecure ink transitional management agreement
With the government’s mandate to reduce the cost of electricity by thirty percent in two years, the Bahamas Electricity Corporation and PowerSecure came to terms on a Transition Services Agreement (TSA) for the management of the Bahamas Electricity Corporation. The agreement was signed on Wednesday, 22nd July 2015.

With this signing, PowerSecure has two months to finalize the business plan that “will provide specific recommendations regarding how PowerSecure plans to manage the New BEC for the next five years” according to the Bahamas government. Further, PowerSecure is charged with developing a plan that will create “efficiencies which will allow for significant reductions in the cost of energy, increased energy security and reliability, environmental responsibility and increased competitiveness as a country.”

Since its selection as the preferred bidder back in April, the government said that the partnership has made “substantial progress in several key areas to lay the foundation for success.”

Specifically, their extensive due diligence throughout the family islands with the management of BEC has resulted in the gathering of key data necessary to inform their business plan.

“These activities” said the statement “have focused on evaluating strategies for enhanced generation capacity, improved transmission and distribution, and the opportunities for the integration of more renewables, particularly solar. The Government has also had very productive discussions with banks regarding rate reduction bonds which are essential to launch the new BEC on a foundation of financial health.”

Mitchell foreshadows new Canadian travel guidelines
Speaking at the monthly luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club of West Nassau, Foreign Affairs Minister Hon. Fred Mitchell announced some rules changes for citizens from visa exempt countries, like The Bahamas, wishing to travel to Canada.

“All persons from visa exempt countries, like The Bahamas, will be required to apply for an eTA (Electronic Travel Authority) before entering Canada. Persons will have to apply online for an eTA with the vast majority of eTA applications to be auto-granted by an electronic system within minutes of submission. All eTA refusals will be made by an officer only. Persons refused an eTA would be persons with a criminal record and/or known by Canadian authorities (immigration, police etc).

“The Canada Border Services Agency’s (CBSA) will provide a “board/no board” message to airlines prior to departure to Canada. Therefore, Bahamian nationals must apply for the eTA ahead of travelling to Canada” said the Minister.

Mychal “Sweet Bells” Thompson gets his own boulevard
Family, friends and well wishers turned out in good numbers on Thursday evening to celebrate with Mychal and twenty-seven other “legends” of sports as they were honoured at a ceremony on the front lawn of the Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium.
The toast of the evening was two time NBA world champion and thirteen year veteran Mychal Thompson who had the main entrance into the Queen Elizabeth Sports Center named in his honour, the “Mychal Thompson Blvd.”

Delivering the keynote address was Prime Minister Christie who put it all in perspective by saying that notwithstanding the great people produced by The Bahamas, history will be the ultimate judge of greatness generations from now.

“We have produced great people in the country. Greatness will truly be assessed generations from now when history will filter out who was really and truly great.”

Commenting on the commonality of the origin and consistent theme of the varied journeys of the honourees, the Prime Minister said that “their origins were all humble circumstances. There was a powerful dream, a dream that I could be somebody special; a dream that anything is possible if I believe in myself.”

Mr. Christie’s remarks capped off a list of tributes delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Hon. Philip Davis, sports journalist Fred Sturrup and former basketball player Sterling Quant.

Responding to the tribute and national gesture toward him and his family, Mychal said he was overwhelmed, humbled and at a loss for words.

“This is truly overwhelming. I am humbled and at a loss for words” said Thompson. He too placed this national honour in perspective, saying that the true honour for him was the love of the Bahamian people and the honour of representing The Bahamas.

“I was honoured when we felt the love of the Bahamian people every time we came back home or when we took the floor when we played. We always knew we had to play for something bigger and that was to represent The Bahamas.

In addition to Mychal, twenty-seven sports luminaries were memorialized with their acrylic image erected along Legends Walk, the concrete pavement leading to the national stadium. The legends ranged from sprinter Thomas Augustus Robinson to triple jumper Leevan Sands.

In Passing…
In a statement released on Friday, 24th July, the US Embassy confirmed that U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Her Excellency Lisa Johnson hosted Bahamian women in law enforcement and the administration of justice to a roundtable discussion at Liberty Overlook. The stakeholders included women leaders from the Ministry of National Security, Royal Bahamas Police Force, Bahamas Customs Department, Department of Immigration, Bahamas Department of Correctional Services, and the Office of the Attorney General. The dialogue provided a forum to discuss challenges and opportunities unique to women in law enforcement in The Bahamas, the United States, and worldwide. The roundtable discussion, facilitated by the Embassy’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, was held on Wednesday, 22nd July 2015.

The Bahamas struck gold for the second time at the 17th Pan Am games in Toronto, Canada when on Thursday Jeffrey “Gentle Giant” Gibson won the 400 meters Intermediate Hurdle event in a time of 48:51 seconds, setting a new Bahamian national record. Also in a spectacular return from a devastating knee injury to world class form, Leevan “Superman” Sands won a silver medal in the triple jump with a season’s best leap of 16.99 meters. His win brings the Bahamas total medal count to four (2 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze) and fifteenth in the overall standings among forty-one participating countries.

Donna Vasyli, charged with murdering her husband Australian Podiatrist Phillip Vasyli, was granted $200,000 bail by the Supreme court on Tuesday of this week. The ruling was pending the outcome of the appeal by the crown.

Entertainment giant and cultural Warrior, Franklin “Count Bernardino” Ellis passed away at Doctor’s hospital early Thursday morning after a long illness; he was 92. A Cacique winner known for his humour, charm and hearty laugh, Count would gain fame and a loyal international following when he toured the United States with his bacchanal band during the early 1950’s. Returning home in the mid 1950’s, Count was engaged by the Bahamas Development Board to tour the world, promoting The Bahamas with great success. He is survived by his wife, Juanita and three children, Nita, Joel and Mia. May his soul rest in peace.