In the aftermath of the most powerful hurricane on record to devastate the country, last year’s 60 percent increase in value-added tax (VAT) and an impending increase in consumers’ light bills, many on New Providence are concerned about the current cost of living.
“[You] can’t even buy food to eat,” one resident expressed to National Review yesterday.
The native Cat Islander, who wished only to be referred to Alexander, has retired on New Providence after serving in the police force. Yesterday he lamented, “I go to the store with $20 and pick up two items, and they cost $19.”
He added, “At Super Value and Solomon’s… every one of them, they’re too expensive. They’re charging too much money for their stuff.”
A look through grocery stores can reveal his concern.
Price Control Commission Chairman and Consultant in the Ministry of Labour Danny Sumner explained yesterday that price control inspectors determine the cost of certain items, in particular breadbasket items in grocery stores, based on a market price which takes account of the cost of customs duties and freight for landing the items in.
He said that different store owners are permitted to have different pricing based on their location, however it must not dramatically differ from the market price.
“The inspectors have an index,” he said.
“They know what the customs duties are on these products. So everything is taken into consideration.”
He added, “So once the item is landed in Nassau…the inspector knows what the customs duties are on each article. And in that customs curriculum area, freight – inland freight – is also taken into consideration.
“So when that item reaches any particular store, all those things have been applied to that particular item.
“So then the inspector will know what the market price is for each item.”
The Price Control Commission regulates pricing across the country, Sumner said, although he noted that it deals mainly with breadbasket items when it comes to grocery.
He added that on New Providence there is a team of about 10-12 inspectors that go out daily to grocery stores all over the island to ensure that price gouging is not taking place; there are nine inspectors on Grand Bahama to cover the northern Bahamas and one or two to cover each other Family Island.
At the Mall at Marathon, Cynthia Munroe, a mother who works in a kiosk, shared similar sentiments with Alexander.
“It’s like every time you get paid, you can’t even save nothin’ because everything is just going towards bills,” Munroe said.
Munroe said she lives with her siblings and is thankful that she doesn’t have to worry about paying rent. However, she said she feels “not too good” about BPL’s rate reduction bond.
“I’m living with my other siblings so everyone contributes towards the bill,” she said.
“And even though we all contribute, we still have financial struggles.”
She added, “It isn’t a matter of how many people is [living] there, it’s how many is working.”
She said that four members of her household are currently working.
Although Princess Cooper and Shirley Lightbourne are retirees, they feel that wages should be raised to help residents to cope with the cost of living.
“Every week, must be, it’s going higher,” said Cooper, adding, “They doin’ for more.”
Lightbourne said she had just
returned from a BPL office, venting that her bill was almost $360 for one month. She said she lives alone.
“Too high,” Cooper pitched in.
Lightbourne said, “I just put a little here, and put a little there and budget.”
‘We get a lot of complaints’
Sumner stressed yesterday that price gouging is being taken seriously and said it includes instances of stores raising their prices during periods when certain items may be in higher demand, such as during hurricane season.
“I have been encouraging the members of the public, during Hurricane Dorian and before Hurricane Dorian… if they going into the stores to purchase a food item, preparing for the hurricane, if they see any gouging, let us know,” he said.
“Because during an imminent hurricane, that is the time when gouging really peaks in this country.”
Store owners can face hefty fines if found to be violating price regulations, Sumner said, disclosing that there have been instances of store owners being fined up to $60,000 for violations.
Sumner said that his commission also manages the regulation of gas pricing and medicine prices at pharmacies as well as the price of rent.
“People don’t realize it but we are responsible for the gas prices, and diesel. We have fined people before for overpricing diesel and gas,” he said.
Although Sumner said the team of inspectors go out daily, he still invited consumers to submit complaints to his commission and noted that they have received a number of complaints already.
“We get a lot of complaints,” Sumner said.
“Once I get a complaint, I pass it onto the inspectors who make their daily visitations to these stores and if they find something that is negative and impacting, they’re gouging and they’re hoarding, then [inspectors] bring it to the board.
“And if there’s a case where we need to present a court case, the minister will then make that determination.
“We work directly under the minister of labor, who is Dion Foulkes. That is where it will end up and, consequently, it will be a court decision.”
He explained that a similar procedure follows complaints of the price of rent.
“If people are overcharging you on rent, that complaint comes to the Price Control as well.”
Sumner added, “It got high after the hurricane because…they know that people are coming in from these islands looking for rent – from Abaco and mainly Freeport.
“A lot of people returned to Nassau from those two major islands and I’ve been getting some complaints almost on a daily basis with rent.
“We have our inspectors, they investigate, along with the Consumer Protection, and see if those complaints are real or legit.”
He explained that “rent is based on the value of the property” and that there are also penalties for landlords found to be overcharging for the cost of rent.
“There’s a lot [consumers] can do; they can make an official complaint and what I would suggest to do is to use the phone, or whatever, take photographs, bring the receipt so we will have tangible evidence.”
Most that spoke with National Review were not aware of the existence of the Price Control Commission.
Cooper commented, “I know a man, a Bowe; he used to go and check around in the stores to see if they putting up the price higher than they’re supposed to put it up.
“But since he gone you don’t hardly hear nobody going to the stores and checking and making them keep the prices down.”
Sumner stressed that he wants consumers to know they can take action.
“I want this news to get out, so it could be a deterrent [to merchants].”
He added, “I want the store owners and the proprietors to take warning as to what the consequences are.
“And what I’m saying is not a threat, what I’m saying is actually reality.
“So I am not really threatening anybody. I’m just letting everybody know that price gouging is serious and the government is prepared to put you to court if you continue doing price gouging.”