Frustration among Abaco business owners weeks after Dorian

Several business owners on Abaco expressed difficulties yesterday in trying to get their businesses viable again weeks after Hurricane Dorian devastated their communities.

Lia Lowe, who manages public relations for the Abaco Gas Company, said the Marsh Harbour company has experienced difficulties in receiving information regarding value-added tax (VAT) payments.

“The government is demanding businesses that still want to operate to pay their VAT for the last quarter, and they’re telling businesses [that] if your files got destroyed you’re going to have to estimate how much you paid for last quarter,” Lowe said.

“We only worked two months this quarter. Nobody made money in September. So, that’s a big issue here right now because businesses are trying to get back on their feet, but there’s not even any clarity on it really.”

Lowe added that the company’s building, along with most of its equipment, was destroyed during the storm; leaving it with one truck to pump gas. 

As far as the economic recovery zones are concerned, Lowe said businesses are forced to charge customers VAT to cover payments. 

“They said in the beginning that Abaco was going to be a tax free zone for three years, but they’re demanding their VAT money and they’re demanding that businesses charge people VAT,” she said.

“So, we have to charge people VAT now even though the prime minister said that we’re going to be this economic recovery zone. That’s not happening here.”

Last month, the government designated Abaco and Grand Bahama “special economic recovery zones” for three years.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said this designation was modeled after what is already in place for the Over-the-Hill initiative in New Providence, and will enable hurricane-impacted communities to benefit from a broad range of tax breaks and incentives.

In an interview with The Nassau Guardian, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest said, “We’re not asking them for anything since the hurricane. This has to do with filings that were due for VAT collected prior to the storm.” 

He added that the government is very sensitive to the fact that many businesses have lost their records; however, businesses can make an estimated payment based on bank records. 

“We can do some back-checking on our side because, as you know, VAT is sort of a self-balancing kind of system and we’ll do the best we can with that,” he said.

“We understand the challenge, and if there is a challenge that we cannot overcome, then we just ask them to come and speak with the inland revenue people and I’m sure they will work out the situation.”

Lowe said, however, that business owners haven’t seen any government entities on the ground to help in this regard thus far. 

“You have to understand the frustration here with people who are trying to get their businesses built back, and the government is knocking on your door telling you that they want their VAT money,” she said.

“It’s really unbelievable to me. We don’t have any office we can go to for information. There are people here who don’t have access to social media or computers or really anything.

“How are they supposed to find out information on even the form that you fill out? A lot of people need assistance with that.”

Lowe said it is unclear when the company, which has been in operation for over 50 years, will operate normally.

She said: “We’re just taking it day by day and waiting for more information from the government on what they plan to do. What sort of assistance they plan to provide us business owners here in Abaco.”

Junior Mernard owns two businesses in Hope Town, Abaco – JR’s Car Rentals and Willie’s Kitchen and Bar.

He claimed the government isn’t compassionate toward business owners on the island. 

The prime minister has indicated that as a special economic recovery zone, the impacted islands will be granted seven exemptions and other benefits, which include the duty free purchase of all materials, fixtures, furniture, vehicles and equipment for all business needs and business construction/rehabilitation efforts.

Minnis said the government will also waive business license fees for operations within the zone.

“As far as duty-free and VAT goes, nobody has worked in Abaco for eight weeks,” Mernard said.

“Where are they going to get money from to pay for anything? No one has had a job or any form of income to say that they’re going to be able to support themselves. Nobody. We feel like the government is punishing us in Abaco.

“My business is going to be fine, but it’s not going to be because of anything the government is doing. I can assure you that.”

He said everybody left on the island is lucky to be alive.

“We’re not at a point where we can be thinking about business until we return our communities to some form of normalcy. We have no electricity. We don’t know when it’s coming,” he said.

“We hear all the bigwigs talking in [New Providence] about infrastructure and how they’re going to put it underground. That’s a bunch of hullabaloo for us right now. From being here, we are at least one year to a year and a half to bringing back some semblance of normalcy.  So, right now we’re still deeply in survival mode.”

From a business standpoint, Mernard said it was a blessing the storm hit the island during its off season, and that business owners won’t feel the full impact of the storm until the holiday season.

“We’re not really going to feel the impact of this storm until Thanksgiving, and when the winter season rolls around and our second homeowners stop coming down for the holidays,” he said.

“The loss for Central Abaco will be to the tune of millions of dollars because that’s what we call a mini season. It starts from Thanksgiving and ends about the second [or] third week of January.

“That’s where the real punch is going to come from, and that spinoff is full circle, from the airlines to the taxi drivers and the ferry boats, to the guy that rents golf carts to the people, and the restaurant business. That’s where the real hurt is going to come in.”

Troy Sims owns Sims Lock Doctors in Marsh Harbour, but he is considering putting operations on hold to pursue a more lucrative business to provide for his family. 

“I have to find another line of work if I’m going to stay here and live here for a while,” he said.

He said he’s considering entering the construction field as he anticipates it will be the number one industry on the island in the next few years.

“I may go into construction or supplying that, maybe hardware or lumber, materials. Maybe even just one aspect of construction,” he said.

“Like, you can get into windows and doors or just roofing. So, you can do well in one of those [fields]. I’ve worked for myself for 25 years. I really don’t want to work for someone again, but I would if I have to.”

“I’d have to go into something different and make money. I’ll keep my van just in case someone needs something here or there, but it won’t be enough to sustain my family.”

Even though Sims considers himself to be one of the lucky ones, as his home wasn’t as damaged as others in Marsh Harbour, he said he has never been as terrified as he was during the storm.

“I’ve never seen walls move in and out, and ceilings go up and down so much in my life,” he said. 

“My family was huddled up in the hallway to stay away from the outer walls. When you see the terror in your wife’s and kids’ eyes and you can’t do anything about it, it’s kind of a sobering experience.”

Like many others on the island, Sims said he’s taking things one day at a time.

He said, “As long as you work hard, and you have some kind of goal, you’ll get by somehow.”

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